I understand the visceral reaction that many have to the collective protest of our National Anthem and Flag. When my home team quarterback Colin Kaepernick set off the firestorm by sitting for the anthem, I felt stung and my sensibilities were offended. Kaepernick, I thought, is an example of our meritocracy – a black man growing up in a struggling Central Valley town who by hard work and skill was able to lead his team to America’s greatest stage. He is an example of America when it works. My reaction was anger and annoyance, how dare he insult our vets when he has benefited so much from their sacrifice? Who the hell is he to complain? He seems to have it pretty good…
First of all, why not Kaepernick? Why not use his position as a successful (albeit currently challenged) athlete on the national stage to make a strong statement on behalf of those who are silenced? Until he sat down for the anthem, no one was paying any attention to him, either. Tweets do not make a movement. Tweets and Facebook posts did call attention to the number of black men who are killed in the street by police officers who later face no trial of their peers. A movement erupted but the comfortable ignored it or made fun of it, insisting that all lives matter when clearly they do not. If the lives of these black men mattered, then there would have been indictments and trials.
He sat and we finally paid attention but we still ignore the statement. We latch on to the hagiography of what the flag means to us without truly questioning what it should mean. Kaepernick made me think hard and my mind was changed. Fundamentally, we a nation of ideals. We a nation based on the political ideology of equality under the law. We are not a nation defined by our borders and our cultural identity. We are not a nation defined by nationalism; we are defined by our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution that codifies our equality under the law.
By taking a knee for the anthem, Kaepernick asserts those ideals and makes a strong and painful declaration that we are not living up to them. Our nation was founded by those who wanted to leave behind the blood and boundary nationalism of Europe. There is an England, there is a France, there is a Germany that transcends the political system of the moment. Vichy France was never not France and the Democratic Republic of Germany continued to be German even under Soviet control. These were and continue to be nations that are defined by their cultural identity and nationalism. We are not.
With my initial anger at Mr. Kaepernick I lost sight of America’s great legacy. We are not a nation founded on boundaries and ethnicity. We are a nation that is founded on the ideas of equality and liberty. If the flag is only a symbol of the sacrifice of our soldiers during war time, then we are nothing more than the physical borders that must be protected, not our principles and not our ideals. Our nation is much greater than our boundaries and we should demand respect for those ideals, especially from sworn officers. Extrajudicial murders in black communities, carried out by the very officers who are meant to protect us, are a perversion of the ideals our nation is built on. The integrity of those ideals are more important than the integrity of our national boundaries, if not more so.
Opening Day of the NFL season fell on the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Nine Eleven. Even after defending my quarterback for the last couple of weeks, I felt ambivalent about the appropriateness of continuing the protest on a day where our nation mourned the greatest attack on our national integrity since the Second World War. Our homeland was attacked. We went to war to protect our ideals and our way of life. Surely sitting down on 9/11 is disrespectful to that memory, isn’t it? And yet, surely it is disrespectful to our ideals to accept that entire communities are not afforded the rights enshrined in our founding documents. To accept that citizens of this country can be killed with impunity, where there is no accountability for the taking of their life, is to deny the concept of our right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
If our flag doesn’t stand for those ideals, then what does it really stand for?
If our flag doesn’t stand for those ideals, then we should all sit.