Coming full circle on Kaepernick and the National Anthem protests
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A few weeks ago, I saw, and read about, San Francisco 49ers Quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, sitting down during the playing of the National Anthem during a preseason  NFL game. My initial reaction was one of anger. 

I was taught from a young age to show respect and stand at attention during the playing of the National Anthem or the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance. I taught my own children, now 15 and 17, these same "rules." 

My boys have been to, or played in, hundreds of sporting events. We always stand, remove our hats and sing the anthem along with the hundreds or thousands of others in attendance. I am not sure if we do this out of patriotism or because it is what we are "supposed" to do. It is probably a bit of both, but it has never been optional in my world.

When I first heard about Kaepernick, I thought his actions were not only disrespectful, but also counterproductive. In my lifetime, I could not recall an athlete, or anyone for that matter, acting in such a way. I knew that a year before I was born in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, medal winners at the Olympics, held up their fists during the anthem in a silent protest against racial discrimination.

Out of curiosity, I recently decided to research how Americans responded to this silent protest. On their return to the states both men were welcomed as heroes by the African-American community, but most others regarded them as unpatriotic trouble-makers. Both received multiple death threats. White America responded angrily to the two black men who had "disrespected" our Country. Now almost 40 years later, these two men are widely regarded as heroes whose actions were meant to draw attention to the pervasive racial discrimination which existed at the time.

Since that night a few weeks ago, many other black athletes have engaged in similar acts of silent protest by kneeling or raising their fists during the anthem. These athletes have stated that they are protesting racial inequality particularly as it relates to the relationship between black men and law enforcement. Their protests have been silent and non-violent. The reaction from many white Americans has ranged from negative to hostile.

As I thought about these silent protests, I began to think about patriotism. What does it mean? I had heard the borderline racist remarks about the protests by otherwise reasonable friends and neighbors. "If they don't like this Country, they can leave", "those people are a disgrace", "if black people followed directions from the police they wouldn't get shot"....... 

Many of these same people become enraged when an alternative viewpoint is discussed. The response to the protests in 2016 has been eerily similar to the response in 1968. The internet chatter and coffee room conversation has largely condemned the protests at least in the white suburban world that I inhabit.

This past weekend football players at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University raised their fists during the playing of the anthem. Both coaches Jim Harbaugh and Coach Mark Dantonio defended their players and their right to engage in silent non-violent protests. Dantonio said at his press conference: “As long as it's done in a peaceful way, this is America. And that's what the flag stands for.”

Jim Harbaugh expressed similar sentiments. The response from some fans, and others who noticed, was indignation, and the online comments to the stories expressed outrage and disgust.

My son's high school football team has only two black players. I had heard during the week preceding last Friday's game that they intended to kneel during the anthem because they were upset by the latest incidents in Charlotte and Tulsa. As word of their intentions spread, many expressed the opinion that it would be inappropriate or disrespectful. Ironically, the student body's theme for the game was "America." Students were encouraged to dress in patriotic clothing and celebrate America. Of course, in our current political climate, the idea of patriotism and "America"  led to many in the student section waving Trump/Pence flags, wearing "Making America Great Again" hats, and engaging in chants of "lock her up" and "build that wall." As the team walked out onto the field  for the anthem I noticed that the two young black men were not with their teammates. It was only after the anthem that they walked onto the field by themselves. I can only assume that they did not feel free to express themselves in front of a primarily white crowd and student body. I found this disturbing.

It was at that moment on Friday night that I decided that I had this all wrong. Patriotism is not an end unto itself. This country was not founded on a wave of nationalistic and patriotic fervor, it was founded on the principles of Freedom and equality. Freedom of speech and expression, Freedom of religion, Freedom of the press.... It is these basic rights which have always made America Great.  In truth, Non-Violent Protests are some of the most basic " Patriotic" and "American" ways to express one's views or beliefs. Prior to 1776, these types of non-violent protests had been suppressed by the British. The Colonists ultimately fought a war to free themselves from British oppression and guarantee their rights and freedoms, including the right to express their beliefs in a public manner. Patriotism was neither the reason for nor the end goal of the bloody war.

We have seen the results, throughout history, of unfettered nationalism and "patriotism". The most glaring example being Germany in the 1930's and 1940's. In Hitler's Germany, freedoms were suppressed, religious and racial discrimination was rampant, and dissension or protest was often squelched with a barrel and a bullet. Germany became a Country that defined itself by its own "patriotism". Germans believed they were great because they were German, and their nationalistic fervor led to some of the world's greatest atrocities.

In the span of a few weeks, I have come full circle.  We are not Germany, but the response by many to the non-violent national anthem protests reflects a similar sense of false patriotism.  True patriots are those who are brave enough to express their views, regardless of how unpopular, in the hopes of fostering change in an evolving society. The historical figures who have "Made America Great" have fought for or defended our basic freedoms. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr......... These great men did not fight for a flag, they fought for freedom and equality. The same freedom that is now being exercised by black athletes in High School, College and Professional sports. We will only make "America Great Again"  when we remember the basic principles that made us great in the first place.

Weiss is an attorney in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Brian is a graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and The DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, Illinois. Brian is married and is the father of two teenage boys.


 

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