Sunday’s football games were eagerly anticipated by just as many people who don’t give a rat’s ass for the sport as by those who were fanatics. All across the nation (and especially in the White House), people’s heads were exploding over what football players were doing (or not doing) during the national anthem. These are the same folks, mind you, who just a few short months ago were going completely insane over the removal of monuments dedicated to people who fought a war to destroy our country.
Let me begin by making one thing clear: I am an army brat. I am from a family with a long and proud history of service in the military. I was raised on bases where everything, including traffic, stopped each night when the flag came down. I was taught respect for our nation’s flag and the proper etiquette on handling it – and that includes not wearing the flag as clothing or using it in advertising.
The national anthem has its own protocol , which I was taught to follow. We were to stand, put our hand over our heart and face the flag. Every movie I watched as a kid on base started with the national anthem and we all stood in silence. I’ve watched grown men cry to hear it and I’ve gotten pretty angry at people I saw laughing and talking during the playing of it.
But #TakeAKnee is not and never has been about the anthem or the flag. It is about the unjust treatment of minorities in a nation that claims to be equal and tolerant. It is about protesting systemic racism and the extrajudicial killings of black people by police.
Our political leaders and the media were full-throated in denouncing the riots that followed the funerals of African-American men killed by police and the violent clashes after the acquittals of those police officers. Those protests were decried as uncivil and counter productive. Of course, the media ignored that many of the people who took to the streets had been peacefully advocating for better treatment for YEARS, without ever changing the inequitable conditions they experienced as Africans-Americans.
Now come sports figures, including at least 100 football players, who use the stage they’ve been given as professional athletes to protest against suffering and oppression by taking a knee or sitting during the national anthem. Because their act of free speech doesn’t match the mainstream American understanding of civil disobedience, this too has been censured and discredited by many, including the current occupant of the White House.
I may not know much but I do know that every time those in power refuse to acknowledge the grievances of the oppressed because those grievances are not framed in a manner considered ‘civil,’ what really happens is that we avoid addressing the oppression.
Diverse expressions of dissent are required to generate meaningful change. A full range of constructive political tactics has always been deployed to liberate us from our oppression. We just can’t fight white supremacy, misogyny, heteropatriarchy and state-sponsored terror without offending/inconveniencing somebody.
Instead of getting caught up in a perception of disrespect or a sense of discomfort, please listen to what these protesters are trying to draw our attention to – that the police are regularly killing unarmed people. Disquiet at the method of protest is not as pressing as the need to address the reality of police brutality and racial bias.
Because if we learned nothing else from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, we learned that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
And sometimes those demands come on bended knee.