Kneeling Tall: Protests, Patriotism, and Police Brutality in Trump’s America

By Samuel O’Brient

Art: Untitled By Manya Tam

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These days, most news articles about the NFL have less to do with actual football and more to do with political turmoilWhen San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during our national anthem last year, no one likely could have foreseen the incredible controversy that would ensue. As the following season heats up, Kaepernick is still unemployed,  despite his impressive career statistics while less accomplished quarterbacks take the field each week. As more players followed his example, President Donald Trump’s commentary on the issue has provoked heated debate.  When he addressed the subject in a press conference, he urged NFL team owners to fire the players who were, as he continuously put it, “disrespecting our flag.” On September 17th, while giving a speech in Huntsville, Alabama, he stated: “That’s a total disrespect of our heritage. That’s a total disrespect of everything we stand for.” [1]

Despite the controversy and criticism from powerful political figures that his actions have evoked, Kaepernick has stood his ground, not willing to compromise his ideals. When asked about the intention behind his gesture, he stated, “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 instances of which Kaepernick speaks are by no means new. They are as old as this America itself, but the recent instances of innocent people of color being gunned down by officers of the law have made the issue impossible to ignore any longer.

According to Kaepernick’s former teammate Eric Reid, the idea to take a knee during the national anthem was first sparked by the instances of police brutality and their desire to stand against it. The murder of unarmed African-American man Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge Louisiana compelled Reid to seek new ways of making a difference. Sterling was shot multiple times from a close distance while two officers held him down.  He stated, “I approached Colin the Saturday before our next game to discuss how I could get involved with the cause but also how we could make a more powerful and positive impact on the social justice movement.” Although their original idea had been to sit, they ultimately decided against it. “We came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest,” Reid added. “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” [2]

Following Trump’s statements, many other NFL players started chiming in, claiming his actions with regard to protests have been inconsistent: while Trump has failed to condemn the violent protests staged by Neo-Nazi and other hate groups, he has been extremely vocal in criticising the players’ peaceful protests of racism, bigotry, and police brutality. “I think the comments from the President of the United States of America have been very divisive,” stated Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks; “We should be more focused on uniting our country.” [3]

Kaepernick and his fellow athletes were far from the only ones to speak up on the subject, though. Many current soldiers and military veterans shared their thoughts on the matter, making their feelings clear. A significant number of the men and women who have actually fought to protect our flag do not agree with their president that these protests are “disrespectful.”  In fact, they seem to feel that Trump’s actions are far more disrespectful to the flag than anything else, claiming that they have fought for, or are fighting to protect the rights of everyone, including those who choose not to stand for their national anthem. In an open letter published by a group titled Veterans for Kaepernick, written and signed by over 20 Military veterans stated, “However you choose to use your voice, please do so with an understanding that many veterans do not condemn the protest of activists like Jackie Robinson, Colin Kaepernick and everyday Americans seeking justice. Indeed, we see no higher form of patriotism.” [4]

Harris and Barrett of the New York Times rightly point out that Kaepernick’s message bears many similarities to a speech given on July 5th, 1852 by African-American orator and social reformer Frederick Douglass. [5] Douglass begins by examining the effect of national independence upon those who were still enslaved. “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?” he asked. [6] “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” [7] His basic message, that American independence did not affect those who were still enslaved is not one that should ever be forgotten. To this day, it is still relevant. Though the events taking place have changed, the sentiment has not. Expecting a former slave to celebrate American independence over 100 years ago still seems as absurd as expecting people to color to honor the national anthem of a nation that has spent centuries belittling, victimizing, and oppressing them, and continues to do so. Douglass goes on to add clarify his thesis further, stating, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” [8] By this logic, it seems safe to assume that he would consider America’s national anthem to be a part of the same category and would be in staunch support of his fellow African-Americans who refuse to honor it, particularly as their way of protesting it invoked no violence and harmed no one. He bluntly calls out the white citizens who called upon him to celebrate their independence with them, describing their actions as “inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.” [9] The term ‘sacrilegious’ should be noted in this context, as it emphasizes the marring, on the part of the white citizens, of what are commonly considered the most important of American ideals, such as freedom, democracy, and above all, equal rights. Douglass makes clear that he feels his nation has been untrue to its founding principles, stating, “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” [10]

When we consider the sentiment of Douglass’ words, it is not hard to see that he was correct in his prediction that America would not be true to its founding principles moving forward. Now it is 2017, and we are living in the era of president who has made it all too clear through his actions that he does not value freedom or equal rights; many have also accused him of not being familiar with the Constitution. [11] His deeds as president, from implementing a ban on traveling Muslim individuals to violating the emoluments clause of Article I, Section IX by retaining ownership of his businesses after taking office, have only provided direct evidence to these claims. His actions regarding the travel ban and the treatment of the Muslim individuals who were affected further demonstrates his lack of regard for equal rights, as well as the equal rights clause of Amendment XIV, Section I of the Constitution, which states, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” [12] Trump’s attitude toward the law officers responsible for the instances that sparked Kaepernick’s protests in the first place have stuck many as far too cavalier. It would appear his attitude towards their actions has not changed in the following months. As recently as August 2017, he addressed a crowd in Brentwood, Long Island and stated, addressing the local police force, “Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody—don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, O.K.?” [13] Given all this, it is certainly not hard to see why individuals, such as Kaepernick, who feel so strongly about the political injustices that they are forced to witness every day would feel compelled to take a stand in a protest that does not invoke more violence.

These claims against him have only been reinforced by his demonstrated failure to condemn the violent actions  committed by members of the  Neo-Nazi party and other white nationalist hate groups. Now his statements regarding the peaceful kneeling protests of a few individual athletes have shown further light on his blatant lack of understanding of both the United States Constitution and the values for which our nation was created to stand. The same can be said for his continued use of this controversy to further divide our nation rather than unify it. [14] Perhaps a question to ask today is, who is he to preach about our nation’s values and our Constitution when he has clearly demonstrated that he has no understanding of either? We should also question what right he has to accuse those who peacefully take a stand of disrespecting the values of our nation, when he himself has blatantly done exactly that. While his refusal to condemn police brutality or white supremacy breeds more hatred and violence, the examples set by figures such as Kaepernick have helped to unify this country and demonstrate how an individual can make a positive difference.  I would personally like to hear Trump attempt to answer any of the questions posed by Douglass in his speech, although evidence strongly indicates that he would not be able to.

[1] Press, Associated. “NFL Anthem Dispute: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Fires Back at Trump.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 23 Sept. 2017.

[2] Reid, Eric. “Eric Reid: Why Colin Kaepernick and I Decided to Take a Knee.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Sept. 2017.

[3] “In Their Own Words: NFL Players Explain Why They Protested.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 25 Sept. 2017.

[4] Veterans for Kaepernick. “An Open Letter of Support for Colin Kaepernick From American Military Veterans.” Medium, Medium, 2 Sept. 2016.

[5] Barrett, Kate Harris And Tracey. “Text to Text | Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem Protest and Frederick Douglass’s ‘What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?’” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Oct. 2016.

[6] Douglass, Frederick. “‘What To The Slave Is The 4th Of July?” FREDERICK DOUGLASS SPEECH, 1852.” What to The Slave Is 4th of July? — 1841 Speech by Frederick Douglass — Courtesy of The Freeman Institute…, The Freeman Institute, 1852.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “In Their Own Words: NFL Players Explain Why They Protested.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 25 Sept. 2017.

[12] Staff, LII. “14th Amendment.” LII / Legal Information Institute, 12 Nov. 2009.

[13] Cobb, Jelani. “Donald Trump Is Serious When He “Jokes” About Police Brutality.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 1 Aug. 2017.

[14] Bump, Philip. “Analysis | Two-Thirds of Americans Think Trump Is Dividing the Country – Including a Fifth of His Supporters.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 Sept. 2017.

Endnotes

Barrett, Kate Harris And Tracey. “Text to Text | Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem Protest and Frederick Douglass’s ‘What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?’” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Oct. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/10/26/learning/lesson-plans/text-to-text-colin-kaepernicks-national-anthem-protest-and-frederick-douglasss-what-to-the-slave-is-the-4th-of-july.html?_r=0.

Bump, Philip. “Analysis | Two-Thirds of Americans Think Trump Is Dividing the Country – Including a Fifth of His Supporters.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 Sept. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/09/24/two-thirds-of-americans-think-trump-is-dividing-the-country-including-a-fifth-of-his-supporters/?utm_term=.3740c3f13cad.

Cobb, Jelani. “Donald Trump Is Serious When He “Jokes” About Police Brutality.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 1 Aug. 2017, www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/donald-trump-is-serious-when-he-jokes-about-police-brutality.

Douglass, Frederick. “‘What To The Slave Is The 4th Of July?” FREDERICK DOUGLASS SPEECH, 1852.” What to The Slave Is 4th of July? — 1841 Speech by Frederick Douglass — Courtesy of The Freeman Institute…, The Freeman Institute, 1852, www.freemaninstitute.com/douglass.htm.

“In Their Own Words: NFL Players Explain Why They Protested.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 25 Sept. 2017, ftw.usatoday.com/2017/09/nfl-players-explain-why-they-protested.

Liptak, Adam. “Trump vs. the Constitution.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Nov. 2016, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/11/29/us/politics/trump-constitution.html.

Press, Associated. “NFL Anthem Dispute: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Fires Back at Trump.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 23 Sept. 2017, http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/nfl-anthem-dispute-trump-says-protesting-players-should-be-fired-n804086?cid=sm_npd_nn_fb_ma.

Reid, Eric. “Eric Reid: Why Colin Kaepernick and I Decided to Take a Knee.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Sept. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/25/opinion/colin-kaepernick-football-protests.html.

Staff, LII. “14th Amendment.” LII / Legal Information Institute, 12 Nov. 2009, www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv.

Veterans for Kaepernick. “An Open Letter of Support for Colin Kaepernick From American Military Veterans.” Medium, Medium, 2 Sept. 2016, medium.com/@VetsForKaep/an-open-letter-of-support-for-colin-kaepernick-from-american-military-veterans-cda9bffb764c.

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