The Patriotism of Protest

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold (58) kneel during the playing of the National anthem before the first half of an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The NFL protests, and the fervor over them, both seemingly died down after reaching a peak last fall. However, with Super Bowl Sunday approaching on February 4, the topic is back in the news. On Tuesday, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, issued a proclamation that declared Super Bowl Sunday “Stand for the Flag Super Bowl Sunday,” citing South Carolina’s major military institutions and veterans and asking South Carolinians to “[support] our troops by standing for the national anthem.” During President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address later that night, he used a 12-year-old boy’s “reverence for those who served” to demonstrate “why we proudly stand for the national anthem.” Unfortunately, both Governor McMaster and President Trump made the mistake that so many have made by misconstruing the reason for the protests entirely.

The protests are not intended to disrespect our flag, our anthem, or our service men and women. They are about the desire to improve America and to make our country a place where the flag, in the words of Colin Kaepernick, “represents what it’s supposed to represent” for every American. They are about life, liberty, and justice. They are about people using the most visible platform they have to elevate the concerns of those who do not have such a prominent voice in our society.

Furthermore, what the flag actually symbolizes is on full display during these protests: freedom, whether that’s the freedom to stand, the freedom to kneel, or the freedom to peacefully protest. The right to peacefully protest without threat from the government is what makes America great (and exceptional in the world), and this freedom is one of those fought for and protected by our military. Protest is as American as apple pie and is an integral part of who we are, from the Boston Tea Party in 1773 to the Tea Party that emerged in 2009.

Moreover, Kaepernick made a conscious decision to kneel rather than sit after veterans advised him that kneeling would show respect for those who fought and died for this country in a way that sitting did not, because the act of kneeling is seen as a universally respectful gesture. His teammate Eric Reid, who eventually joined him in protest, stated that he thinks of the kneeling posture as similar to “a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

And make no mistake, the NFL protests do mark a tragedy. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. Tamir Rice. Alton Sterling. Walter Scott. Daniel Shaver. Ismael Lopez. Andrew Finch. Countless others. These were American lives lost, with little or no repercussions for the individuals who ended those lives after having sworn to uphold and protect the law. It is a tragedy that the color of one’s skin could potentially make the difference between a peaceful or fatal interaction with the police. It is a tragedy that the police can make such costly mistakes with impunity. It is a tragedy that lives — American lives, human lives — were cut short.

That doesn’t even begin to touch other forms of rampant corruption in the criminal justice system, from government-sanctioned theft in the form of civil asset forfeiture, to Joseph Tigano III being held in pretrial confinement for seven years before even being convicted of a crime, to the NYPD “Get Out of Jail Free” cards (that officers allegedly gave to family and friends as presents), to the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force’s years of illegal arrests and theft. T. Greg Doucette’s ongoing “criminal justice news” thread on Twitter provides even more examples.

Colin Kaepernick’s protest was intended to highlight such injustices.

The fall of 2017 saw increased inflammation than from the previous season, with more players participating in some form of protest than had ever before. But much of the increased participation was specifically due to, and directed at, actions and comments by the President of the United States, as players, coaches, and owners joined in solidarity with their teammates after the president personally targeted them. President Trump stated at a September rally that NFL owners should respond to protesting players by saying “get that son of a b—- off the field right now – he’s fired!” He followed up these remarks by spending multiple days tweeting about the NFL in an effort to intimidate the organization into behaving as he wished.

There is the language, which many would have found appalling had Barack Obama spoken that way. There is the disgraceful fact that President Trump referred to athletes peacefully protesting racial injustice as “sons of b—-es” but Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville as “very fine people.” There is the absurdity that the draft-dodging man, who fought with a Gold Star family and insulted former POW John McCain for being captured while fighting for his country, is now the man telling other people how to respect our military.

But what is truly offensive is a government official — our top government official — explicitly telling private organizations who they should or should not employ because they engaged in political speech with which the president disagreed. That, in itself, is utterly un-American. That is more disrespectful to American ideals and our flag than anyone kneeling before a football game. And it’s far more dangerous to our Republic.

Unfortunately, the origin of, and the point behind, the protests continuously gets lost amid the frenzy: An American decided he would silently refrain from standing during the national anthem, for two minutes before the game even starts, because he wanted to peacefully direct attention to injustices, particularly those inflicted on minorities. He wanted to shine a light on the fact that the government was failing to protect the lives and liberty of all Americans. People might disagree about police brutality and injustice or believe that such concerns are overblown. But the unending outrage is not an appropriate response. There has been no looting, rioting, or destruction of personal property. There has been no injuries or deaths or any violence at all. There has only been silent, peaceful protest, which lasts for fewer than three minutes, that has now succeeded in causing the nation to confront worthwhile issues.

Protests are supposed to make people uncomfortable; whether it was the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, or the civil rights movement, causes related to civil rights have historically not been viewed positively at the time — but are viewed approvingly years later. For example, in 1961, 57% of Americans believed sit-ins and freedom riders hurt the civil rights cause, but today we view them favorably, with the now conventional wisdom that they changed America for the better. Moreover, in 1963, only 23% of Americans had a positive view of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the same year that King wrote in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that he had “yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly…” and warned against those who say “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” King himself had a favorability rating of 33% in 1966. However, today his favorability rating is 94%.

In a similar fashion, last year 54% of Americans disapproved of the NFL protests during the anthem. Perhaps fifty years from now, America will look back on the protests as having started a worthwhile dialogue and as having led to much-needed criminal justice reform.

Some critics have expressed that they just want to watch football without politics — to harken back to King’s words, they cannot agree with the NFL protesters’ methods of direct action. Their frustration and desire to escape an increasingly political world is understandable. But many Americans wish the protests weren’t necessary — because that would mean Americans weren’t being mistreated or summarily executed at the hands of those who were sworn to protect them.

Some critics argue that the players should take their “politics” off field and work to make a difference on their own time. But they are — Colin Kaepernick has pledged to donate $1 million to various charities and has hosted a camp for underprivileged children; Philadelphia Eagles player Chris Long donated his entire 2017 salary to educational charities; after Hurricane Harvey, Houston Texans player J.J. Watt raised $37 million, while Houston Texans player Deshaun Watson gave his first NFL paycheck to Houstonians — the examples are plentiful. Moreover, it is disappointing that a discussion regarding American lives and police reform is even considered politicized at all. If politicization occurred, it did not begin when a handful of players used the most powerful platform they had (that others do not) to shine a light on inequalities and injustices in America; it began when the president encouraged the firing of those who engage in political speech with which he disagrees. Furthermore, proponents of small and limited government in particular should be the first to condemn an enforcement arm of the government using its power to mistreat, strip constitutional or natural rights, or kill Americans.

Before Seattle Seahawks player and United States Army Green Beret Nate Boyer advised Colin Kaepernick to kneel rather than sit, he wrote him an open letter, in which he wrote that his mother cautioned him that “the last thing our country needed right now was more hate,” which helped convince him to “keep listening, with an open mind.” This is advice we could all afford to take to heart.

I don’t want a country where people are forced or feel pressured to stand for the national anthem. I want a country where every person, regardless of race or sex or political affiliation, wants to stand for the national anthem, because every American feels he or she has no reason not to. I believe that’s what these protesters want and hope to accomplish with their protests, too. On Super Bowl Sunday, that’s what we should keep in mind if some players choose to kneel before their flag.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.