While watching my son at a weekend hockey game last weekend I overheard a conversation an older, wealthy-appearing woman was having with her companion. I pretended to be reading (I’m the bad dad who only watches the game when his own son is out on a shift) while she orated (in a faux, poorly executed, Mid Atlantic English nasal accent) a story she had heard from “down in Texas” about how a righteous high school coach had kicked two players off his team who had the gall and traitorous audacity to kneel during the pre-game rendering of the national anthem.
“Whaaaaaat are they eeeeeven protesting?” the Hepburn knock off sing-songed. To which her companion shrugged her shoulders. Who knows? It’s senseless…
Today after whacking out another Sunday appendix I went to update the 60ish husband. He was grateful and nice and laid back and we stood there in the empty family waiting area shooting the breeze a bit. He was a cool guy. Seemed successful. We talked Buckeye football a bit. I told him he could watch a little NFL pre-game while his wife woke up from anesthesia and the nurses would grab him in an hour or so. He looked at me shaking his head. You know I’ve been a Browns fan 50 years, through thick and thin. But the other week when they did that black power thing down on the field, I clicked the damn TV off. Never again. To which I just sort of stared in awkward silence. Yeah, uh, so anyway, your wife will be just fine.
And then today, our Vice President pulled a little stunt where he flew back to Indiana from Las Vegas last night, went to the Colts-San Fran game, and then announced via Twiter that he was leaving the game immediately because some 49er players kneeled during the anthem. Then he got on a plane and flew back to California.
What the hell, man.
Enough ink has been spilled, enough bandwidth has been filled on the internets already with hot takes on the controversy over NFL players choosing to protest police brutality against African-Americans and so I apologize in advance for another tired self-righteous rant. But this is an issue that nags at my conscience. I can’t seem to just move on to the next news cycle. I have to break it down, understand it completely, see it from all the angles, all the perspectives. All you can do is ask a bunch of annoying questions.
Why do the the players kneel? Well anyone asking that question, at this point, is either being willfully obtuse or is just the most incurious person on the planet. The players, Kaepernick above all, have never been coy about what it is the kneeling protests are all about.
When asked last year, this is what Kaepernick had to say:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
The players are protesting a very specific thing: police brutality and the unequal treatment black Americans receive at the hands of law enforcement in this country. The numbers likewise seem to support the thrust of the protests: Blacks are killed 3 times as often as whites by law enforcement officers. Blacks are subjected to physical violence by over zealous cops 3.5-4 times as often as whites. And unarmed blacks are 5 times as likely to be shot by a police officer as an unarmed white person. Now the numbers aren't huge. (Per year, 200-300 African Americans are shot by police every year). But it is a real and ominous threat. There is a reason why African Americans fear interactions with police. And layered on top on this ever present fear of sudden death at the hands of those empowered to "protect and serve" are the various micro-aggressions people of color must endure, i.e. stop and frisk harassment and being pulled over by a cop for "DWB" (driving while black). Further, in the era of cell phone cameras and YouTube, these incidents of arbitrary state executions are etched in our documented lore. The names of Walter Scott and Eric Garner and Philando Castile and John Crawford and Michael Brown and Tanisha Anderson and Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice will not be forgotten as maybe their forebears were in the Jim Crow era.
So anyone who sits there scratching her head in befuddlement over why players are kneeling on the sideline is not articulating a stance in good faith. There was never a question about the why. Attempts to chalk this up as an juvenile attention seeking stunt by "rich ungrateful blacks" is end-stage, pathological disingenuousness.
What about the way the players are going about it? Is their protest overly disrespectful or disruptive? And should that even matter? Who says that political or social justice protests have to be done in a way that is deemed proper and acceptable by the very same people at whom the gist of the protest is directed? Change and civil disobedience is always disruptive and discomforting. It's not supposed to be a warm and fuzzy communal event. It's supposed to make the targets of the protest uncomfortable. Social justice protest never is popular "in the polls". The Freedom Riders and MLK were roundly denounced by the majority of Americans. Marches on Washington to protest the unlawful Vietnam War were overwhelmingly unpopular. Even marches to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic and gay rights hovered around 20% in the national polls. Civil protest movements are never going to be popular. By definition, it is an attempt by the minority to alter the perceptions of the oppressor majority. The initial instinct of the status quo majority is to shrink from the inconvenient demand for change. Remember, just 9 years ago, the 2 Democratic candidates for President were both on record stating that marriage ought to be restricted to a man and woman. Life moves fast. Things can change quickly.
But is the protest really disruptive? Are any of the players ripping down the flag or running over to tackle the singer of the anthem? No. Initially Kaepernick sat on the bench during the anthem but, after consultation with former Green Beret Seahawks safety Nate Boyer, he henceforth carried out his protest by kneeling. Respectful, quiet, solemn. Boyer stood beside him in support as he kneeled. And the majority of white America is losing its collective mind over it. Even our very dumb, very self absorbed president can't stop tweeting about it.
Another thing I keep hearing from the "Defenders of the Flag" contingent is that, by kneeling, one is disrespecting and dishonoring the sacrifice of soldiers and military officers who gave their lives to provide the very country and laws and rights that allows these "entitled, disgruntled players" to complain. This rebuke has to be taken a bit more seriously. But one finds that many actual military veterans, both active and retired, are supportive of the players' right to protest as they see fit. Many veterans interpret the sacrifices of their brethren not as selfless acts carried out merely to ensure that all Americans dutifully, mechanistically stand when the Star Spangled Banner rings out but to guarantee that an American may choose to stand or sit, to choose to sing along with hand over heart or raise a fist in the air. The "military"is not a monolithic bloc. It is, like any large organization, comprised of heterogeneous personalities with variegated opinions. Some find the protests inappropriate or even despicable. But many have surprisingly gone on record supporting the players' right to kneel. Like this guy. And this guy. And these guys. And this terrific 97 year old vet. And hell, just spend some time following #VeteransForKaepernick.
More commonly, the kinds of people most strident in their condemnation of the kneelers as "dishonoring soldiers and the military" are people who never served themselves and who have backed foreign policy decisions that have unnecessarily risked the lives of the tens of thousands of young men and women who had the courage to enlist. It's as if this hyper-nationalistic patriotism acts as a thin veneer to baldly cover up the rot of Vietnam and the Iraq debacle, of widening wealth and income inequality, of a nation that spends more on military adventurism than the next ten countries in the world combined while remaining the only advanced Western democracy without universal health coverage. One wonders: Where was this outrage when our government sent young men and women across the world to fight unjustifiable, illegal wars of conquest and domination for no discernible national security reason other than the enrichment of the military-industrial complex? Are many of them overcompensating for a guilty conscience? Is it really about concern for "military respect" or is it more a demand for racially charged compliance? Either way, the ladies doth protest too much, methinks.
And what function does the playing of the anthem and the displaying of the flag serve? Isn't that the essential thing we need to get at? What is it really all about? What is this place called America? The flag calls forth a notion of collective being. It's supposed to unite us in some sort of shared purpose and identity. That's why we have symbols. We need those occasional visual reminders. I carry a stethoscope and wear a white coat mainly for the symbolism, the ritual act of performing the duties of doctor.
If you feel the need to stand and doff your cap for the national anthem then, by all means, stand! If the initial martial strains of the Star Spangled banner rouse you to rise, hand over heart, go for it. It's ok. No one is going to look askance at you. (Patriotism being one of the last bastions of earnestness immune to irony and all.) If, for you, the anthem blaring as the Stars and Stripes ripple in the breeze represents something crucial, something that brings you to a full stop---- pause, set down your beer, cut off that inane conversation to reverently spend two and a half minutes of your day focusing on something other than the banal humdrum of existence filtering through your head then DO IT. If it symbolizes for you the sacrifice of dead soldiers and American military might, and you feel obligated to physically enact a ritual of public honor, then for god's sake get on your feet and sing those damn verses as loud as you can (just be careful of the third verse of Francis Scott Key's ode to American power, the one about offing rebel slaves).
But know that as soon as you admit symbolism into the conversation you've crossed a rhetorical Rubicon. Subjectivity is always a multi-edged sword. Once it enters the equation you open up a wide gate for the hordes to invade. And invade they rightfully will.
That flag and that impossible to sing on key national anthem you love so much doesn't necessarily mean the same damn thing to everyone on main street. This shouldn't be that hard to internalize. That visually pleasing, damn fine, cool ass looking flag doesn't symbolize goodness and honor and human exceptionalism to the extent you think it does. Don't believe me? Ask the Native American descendant, the elderly African American red-lined out of good neighborhoods and schools as a younger man, the alcoholic Vietnam veteran limping on a prosthetic, the PTSD ravaged Operation Iraqi Freedom infantryman beckoned back to the desert on a stop-loss order, the young black male racially profiled by cops on his way to the 7-11, the down-sized, off shored middle aged male now working appliances for $10/hr at Home Depot, the young millennial living at home trying to figure out how to manage payments on student loans of $150,000 while still budgeting enough cash for a chintz engagement ring for the love of his life. Those folk may have a different perspective. Instead of wide-eyed, militant enthusiasm with the first bars of Oh say can you see... maybe there is instead a mournful bittersweet pause. Which isn't necessarily any less patriotic. Blind allegiance to an idea of America that doesn't exist is far more detrimental than a quiet melancholic awareness of the ways we fall short of our ideals.
Oscar Wilde called patriotism the virtue of the vicious. Samuel Johnson described it as the last refuge of the scoundrel. Patriotism needn't always be seen so cynically. It is good to acknowledge the slow incremental progress of our homeland, the struggles of our ancestors; to be thankful for the blessings and privileges we were merely born into. Patriotism is gratitude, yes. But it also requires a concomitant honest moral reckoning. Malcolm X said: "You're not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it". The sports figures we see kneeling for the anthem are doing so because they seek equal protection under the law. They recognize that the fundamental principles of this nation---- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--- have not always been guaranteed equally to all Americans.
Colin Kaepernick basically sacrificed his career for this act of civil disobedience. Like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who were tossed from the 1968 Olympics for raising fists on the medal stand, Kaepernick's actions have resulted in deleterious consequences for his own material well being. Colin Kaepernick is the best kind of American patriot. Like Carlos and Smith and MLK and Cassius Clay before him, he has put righteousness over personal advancement. It is the kind of patriotic example that can help make America good again.