To many, the flag and the national anthem are unassailable pieces of Americana. To attack them is to attack tropes of freedom and equality that serve as the foundation of this country’s morality. Colin Kaepernick’s continual refusal to stand during the “Star Spangled Banner” is seen as a woefully unappreciative slight.
But this unyielding attachment to the flag is a zero-sum fallacy that suffocates discourse, in return directing attention away from the real issue at hand – continual racial disparities in our policing and judicial systems that oppress black Americans – and toward a faux controversy: Kaepernick’s lack of appreciation for military, police or America itself.
Kaepernick is not denouncing America or its ideals. It is rather the opposite; he is embracing them. He sees what America is and what it could be. This does not discredit the sacrifice that those who serve bravely make or all the racial progress that the country has made. It is not a condemnation on all American police and their role in society or American-bashing fanaticism. It simply acknowledges that there is more to be done; we have not yet crossed the finish line.
“I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this,” Kaepernick said in September. ”I want to make America better. I think having these conversations helps everybody have a better understanding of where everybody is coming from.”
This is both a profoundly honest cup check of what America is and a deeply patriotic belief that we can still improve. His articulation and well-thought out opinion frustrates many who try to pervert his actions to represent something that they simply don’t.
The argument has been made publicly by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees that while Kaepernick’s motive, speaking out against police brutality is justified, his method – sitting during the national anthem – is not. But I have yet to see these critics offer an alternative method. What change has occurred by keeping in step with the status quo and coddling everyone’s feelings? Protest is meant to evoke; it is meant to cause discomfort. If successful, a protest should use this discomfort as a catalyst for reflection, which initiates discussion and ultimately, change.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. perfectly articulated these sentiments when he addressed the moderate Southern churches in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” saying, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
Kaepernick’s actions have spurred scores of professional and collegiate players to take action. Just two week ago, students at our own Stony Brook University sat as the national anthem echoed through Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium. Kaepernick’s stance, and the subsequent reactions it has ignited, remains poignant in the news cycle months after its conception. Using his power of the limelight, he has pushed issues he believes divide our country into the forefront and forced us to
Long gone are the days when the national anthem was repurposed for political commentary, such as with E.A. Atlee’s 1844 satire, “Oh Say, Do You Hear?” Appearing in the abolitionist newspaper, Signal of Liberty, and later in William Lloyd Garrison’s better-known paper, The Liberator, Atlee’s piece mocks the boastful proclamations of freedom in a society practicing slavery: “Oh, say do you hear, at the dawn’s early light, / The shrieks of those bondmen, whose blood is now streaming / From the merciless lash, while our banner in sight / With its stars, mocking freedom is fitfully gleaming?”
You would be hard pressed to find a modern American discount the merit of Atlee’s poem. The issue at hand, slavery, is a universally condemned atrocity (minus lingering wackjob apologists). The medium exemplified a clear contradiction, just as Kaepernick looks to expose contradictory injustices against blacks in America. Again, protest is not meant to expunge or solve issues. It is meant to illuminate them to such a degree that they can no longe be ignored.
I suspect that 170 years from now, we will look back and see today’s income inequality, criminal disparities and racial barriers just as obviously wrong and with just as much disbelief as we now see slavery, or as we now see Jim Crow America. But the longer our country allows an undying ideology to reject any personal criticisms, the longer it will take to meet this realization. If 19th century Boston police boycotted duties because of Atlee’s remarks like the Santa Monica police threatened to do in response to Kaepernick’s harmless protest, progress would have been stunted. Kaepernick’s constitutional right to protest should be protected, regardless if you agree with his sentiments,
If we cannot be honest with ourselves and the state of our country, we cannot resolve these issues.
There is a certain undeniable laudability to acting in solidarity against the wishes of your employer. Kaepernick faces a very real, tangible risk of losing his job, sponsorship deals or public perception by defending his beliefs. But he sees the reality and thinks change is worth the sacrifice. We should too. To deflect criticism is to settle and to settle is to petrify progress.