On Sunday, September 11th, the NFL games and opening ceremonies taking place will have a new significance to them. Whether you are a football fan or not, the current protest led by Colin Kaepernick sitting/kneeling during the national anthem and the ensuing conversation for or against his declaration is a timely and profound one that calls for a response. Other professional athletes have even started to join Kaepernick, stating they are proud of him drawing attention to police brutality in the African American community in his own sphere of influence, along with his pledge to give 1million to efforts in the same communities. But others are responding to this protest with deep anger, crying foul that someone could sit during the national anthem, taking personal offense to military honor through the protest, or even suggesting that people who protest the anthem don’t appreciate the freedoms in this country and should leave. (As if citizens in the US had a viable place they could go to escape racist national policies and injustices – if it did exist, that make-believe place might get very full, very fast.) To have this conversation of protesting the anthem boiling over as the anniversary of the national tragedy of 9/11 hits our nation is a convergence that brings certain questions and assumptions to the front of our national consciousness: what do we think is patriotic or unpatriotic, what do we see as divisive or as constructive communal action, and who belongs to this nation/who does our nation promise to protect and defend? Yes, as surprising as it seems, the national football arena is currently captivating our country in a fight about national honor, police brutality, and race.
There are some good pieces already written about understanding Kaepernick’s motivation, the lyrics of the national anthem, and why we sing the anthem at sporting events at all (google for more) – but the reflexive anger and anxiety around his protest seems to be rooted in a belief that this action is unpatriotic and dishonorable. Those arguing with Kaepernick’s protest rarely engage the topics of national racism and law enforcement, but instead critique the method of protest. And here is where I disagree – because peaceful protest should be considered all these things: patriotic, constructive, honorable, a form of exercising constitutional rights, and even an action that benefits our country as it calls attention to injustice done within and by our nation. Protest is historically how our nation gets stronger and better at protecting all of its citizens, and for those doing the protesting it is the only way that those in power are made to listen and take notice. The suggestion made that those who protest our nation’s anthem by sitting or kneeling should leave the country, or be grateful for what they already have, or be more patriotic, is evidence that the reality and desperation that culminated in protest in the first place, is still not being heard. Those protesting belong here, in their country, as much as anyone else. Those protesting are grateful for the good in our country as much as anyone else. Those protesting are citizens taking communal action – asking their country to make good on its promises for equity and justice and to protect and defend life. They are pointing to something about our nation that is broken and that impacts them most deeply: the truth that over and over and over again, racism in our nation’s law enforcement and in our courts is flagrantly taking lives – black lives – and then not being held accountable for those deaths. These men, women and even children who are killed, whose names we only learn as hashtags in the news, are forever silenced and unable to speak for themselves again. Protesting is a way to in part speak for them, to point out and resist the decades (centuries, really) of policies, personal and systemic biases, legal decisions, growing culture of violence, and straight up racism that keeps resulting in these deaths. Protest is a way to collectively remind our nation and each other who we say we are and what we must change to honestly fulfill our proud patriotism.
Sometimes the whole country needs to be woken up – jarred awake – in order to see how bad something really is, and for citizens to collectively to care enough to take action and vote for people and policies that will bring national change. Protest was the method that demanded many national policy changes in our history, including Civil Rights, women’s rights to vote, and ending engagement in various national wars. It was when thousands of veterans protested the Vietnam War – even throwing back their earned medals of honor into messy heaps on the steps of the capital to make their point – that the years of ongoing protests grew loud enough that America woke up and paid attention to how many lives were being lost in that conflict. It was an increasingly desperate protest that took years of truth-telling and then drastic policy change to rectify. Right now in our country, the injustices driving protests like Kaepernick speaking out against police brutality have reached a desperate point and people are crying out – don’t you see what keeps happening? Don’t you see the death and suffering that is systemic that we keep having to endure? Why aren’t all of you angry and speaking out with us? We have already been patient – but now what is going to be done to fix it?
Instead of hearing the content of this plea that has led to protest, some are relying on a thin definition of patriotism as the excuse to turn away from the pain and death regularly happening in the Black community. It is offensive and maddening for a certain group of people to keep being told – don’t bring up your pain because that feels divisive to me; quietly wait your turn (and btw, be grateful while waiting says Bill OReilly), for justice and equity to be applied to you and your community; never mind if things keep getting worse and your lives are being lost while you wait, just don’t speak up in this way or that way to demand change. What if these were our children, would we ever tell them that? Would we tell our family or friends that? Or would we stand up and shout and say no, enough, this is not right, I have seen year after year after decade of the African American community struggling and being beaten down and literally losing their lives. How do we respond to pain and death when it matters to us, or whose pain and death do we ignore? Whose life and liberty do we expect our nation to protect and defend, and whose lives do we not seem to value as much as standing during a song that we ascribe as being patriotic? For example, I do not have people in the Armed Services in my immediate family and I don’t always understand that world, but I work to make space to feel that grief, sacrifice, and the cost of that kind of service to our nation that others experience. Why can’t people who are not from the Black community also work to understand and feel the grief of those who are devastated by the ongoing systemic injustices, pain, and death that are driving this pressing issue of police brutality? Saying those who protest don’t belong, should leave their country, should be more grateful, or aren’t being patriotic are just ways to distance ourselves further from their truth that is being revealed – their voices are pointing out gaps in our own nation’s promise to exercise liberty and justice for all. Our own collective sense of justice should be very interested in making space to hear where our nation’s law enforcement, courts, and systems are not being applied equitably. We should welcome the voices raised in protest over racism and police brutality as embodying an important aspect of patriotism, because they are calling attention to the weak links in our national system of security and law that holds us all together.
We can be patriotic in many ways – by honoring those who served and died for our country in the national anthem and in other ways, by remembering those who rescued others and those who died in the national attacks on 9/11, and by paying attention to those dying right now in the Black community that are still waiting to be seen, heard, and fought for in equally significant ways. When Kaepernick brings attention to the injustices and desperation that so many in the African-American community experience to the nationally televised stage that a NFL game affords, I think it is an act of personal bravery and an invitation to others toward collective action. Athletes like Kaepernick are not lessening their patriotism by protesting but exercising it, by using their voices for others. Protest is the language of the unheard, said MLK. I pray that instead of being afraid of what can feel like division, or offended behind a veil of vague patriotism, we instead might be able to make space to listen, and to truly hear and feel the desperation and the death that is giving rise to the protest in the first place. Then we might recognize that listening to the African American community is necessary for our nation to be stronger, better, more free and more just. The same way we must listen to our veterans and those who sacrificed for our country or suffered on 9/11. Together we could then all exercise our patriotism by making space for each other, and speaking out for changes to our national policies that will defend, protect, and be life-giving for all – that would be a beautiful way to honor 9/11 and the best things our country can and should be about.