Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, chose not to stand for the National Anthem at a recent pre-season football game. Players are not required to stand under NFL rules, and Kaepernick was clear about his reasons to remain seated, stating ”I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Subsequently, he has given interviews about his decision, and the well-thought out reasons behind it.
While Kaepernick has seen some support, he has also faced enormous backlash for his decision – from pundits, from current and former NFL players, from the San Francisco Police Officers’ Association, and predictably, he has been skewered mercilessly on Twitter and in the online commentary sections of various websites.
Some of the online criticism has been of the typically jingoistic “my country – love it or leave it” or “my country – right or wrong” variety that tends to become prevalent when legitimate protest involves the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem. And these types of criticism are particularly troubling, because they are designed to tell people “you can’t be a good American if you don’t honor this symbol in a particular way.”
I have spent the majority of my career working for the federal government. I am proud to work in a building where the American flag flies, and where pictures of the President and Vice-President are in the lobby. I understand the power and meaning of symbols. And it precisely the power and meaning of symbols that makes protests involving them so resonant – and necessary. I don’t know much about football, but I do know something about the First Amendment. Kaepernick’s actions are fully-protected free speech, and the type of peaceful public protest that has been central to social justice movements.
And for those whose response to Kaepernick is “my country — right or wrong,” it’s time to look at the response to that quote by US Senator Carl Schurz in 1899. Schurz decried the statement as “a deceptive cry of mock patriotism”, and went on to state that the “welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country — when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”
Kaepernick saw something he thought was wrong in his country. Like generations of Americans before him, he engaged in a peaceful public protest to bring attention to that wrong, and to make a statement as to how it needed to be put right. And for that he should not be vilified, but applauded.