On Friday night, an NFL preseason game that would not have otherwise been of any great consequence played home to a silent political protest which has got the whole nation a-flutter.
San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand during the playing of the national anthem before the game.
In explanation, Kaepernick said,”I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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 last sentence is of course in reference to the numerous cases concerning the alleged use of excessive force by police officers in dealing with citizens of racial or ethnic minorities.
The 49ers made their stance quite clear in the immediate media wake of the event, releasing a statement which read, “The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pregame ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose to participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
Quite frankly, that should be the end of the story.
Kaepernick expressed his constitutional right of free speech to silently protest for a stance that he believes in.
Unfortunately, as with most statements made in the name of racial or other hot-button questions, this was thrown out the window in the eyes of many who fell back on the out-dated notions of “national pride” and “patriotism”.
In just the last two days, there has been a mountain of criticism thrown onto the gesture.
The three arguments that have most often been made against Kaepernick’s actions are: un-American, disrespectful, and negative.
First, the use of ones constitutional rights is about as American as it gets.
The founding principle of this country is that every citizen has certain rights and freedoms which are universal (“unalienable rights”).
Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression, both covered by the First Amendment to the Constitution, are the exact rights Kaepernick is taking full advantage of here.
If a fan in the stadium for the same football game chose not to stand, nothing would be made of it. A figure in the public light has the exact same freedoms.
Secondly, a national flag or national anthem should not be respected by default. A country is nothing more than artificially-drawn lines built and altered as it suits the needs of people or environment.
A flag is nothing more than a piece of cloth which is marked with certain colors and patterns which are recognized as “representing” a particular country or region.
Respect for these ideas are not earned, but instead demanded and coerced by tradition and peer pressure.
It is not disrespectful, as there is no inherent respect which comes with the flag or anthem.
Furthermore, declining to stand for the anthem, or declining to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school, is not disrespectful to the service men and women who fought and died for this country.
Those soldiers and civilians gave their lives not to protect the rights of the many, or powerful, but to protect the rights of all citizens.
The disrespect here is insinuating that these sacrifices were made to promote your personal way of life.
Lastly, this idea that what Kaepernick did was “publicity stunt” or shines a poor light on those who Kaepernick is supporting (read: minorities) is dripping in white privilege.
It is easy for current and former players to deride Kaepernick’s actions when they are not personally affected by the circumstances which the man is protesting.
I have also heard someone say that Kaepernick “should be doing positive things”, in other words, that he should be working in his community to bring about positive change.
While this is a good thought, it does not take into account that this is not a problem restricted to a single community.
It is a national issue and deserves national attention.
This man is choosing to put his public persona and, perhaps, money on the line to defend his beliefs.
That is not “negativity”.
That is making a choice and living with the consequences of that choice.
Question: was it negative when NBA star Dwyane Wade appeared on a panel for ESPN’s The Undefeated to talk about gun violence in Chicago one day before his cousin was shot and killed by a stray bullet only a few blocks away?
Of course not.
Just as Wade witnessed first-hand the violence of the inner city growing up, so too has every person in this country borne witness to the very thing that Kaepernick was protesting.
In fact, it is imperative that people in the limelight, celebrities and the like, do their part in showing solidarity with those whose voices have so long and often have been shouted down.
They should do just as Kaepernick has done, use a gesture, whether in silent protest or in grandiose discourse to bring these issues to the forefront.
Personally, I hope that Kaepernick continues to observe his constitutional rights.
More than that, I hope that people come to understand that gestures like this are not made to get the media talking about the person who made the gesture, but instead about what that gesture represents.
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Cover Photo Credit: Mike Morbeck/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)