It’s Not About the Flag or the Military. It Never Has Been.

When athletes protest during the national anthem, they are acting on behalf of people who can’t speak as loudly.

September 24, 2017

President Trump’s weekend attack on athletes exercising their constitutional right to protest followed the longtime model used by police unions. Instead of acknowledging the legitimacy of the complaint that there is discrimination and misconduct in policing — Trump, like the unions, changed the subject, lashing out at the athletes as unpatriotic, even anti-American. The protests were mischaracterized as attacks on the flag, the anthem, the military, or the nation itself. As if it were ordained somewhere that one must stand, as opposed to kneel, for the anthem.

This is nonsense, of course. There is nothing more American than protesting injustice when it is manifest, nothing more patriotic than speaking for those who do not have a voice or whose voices are rarely heard. When people protest police misconduct, and racial disparities in our criminal justice systems, they are acting to improve the conditions of their fellow Americans, acting to force necessary reform on people (like Trump) and institutions (like police unions) that resist this change. This is “anti-American” or unpatriotic only if you believe the protections of the First Amendment are overrated or unnecessary. And only if you believe it’s unpatriotic to want to make America more just.

Many heroes emerged over the weekend in the wake of the president’s comments. Some of the same NFL owners who helped bankroll the Trump campaign publicly criticized the president. Robert Kraft, and one of the most powerful owners in the NFL, and who gave a $1 million for Trump’s inaugural, publicly criticized the president in a Tweet early Sunday morning. Kraft, owner of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, said he was not only “deeply disappointed” by Trump’s remarks, but added that his players were “thoughtful” and “intelligent”, and he supported “their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner they feel is most impactful.”

Athletes from virtually every league spoke up for their right to free expression in the time, place, and manner of their choosing. Hundreds of players took a knee. Others stood up. For example, while his teammates stayed inside the locker room as the anthem played, Pittsburgh Steeler and former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva stood in a tunnel with his hand over his heart, which is his right. Bruce Maxwell, a catcher for the Oakland A’s, Saturday night became the first major league baseball player to take a knee in protest. He is an African-American of mixed race, who was born in Germany while his father was serving there in the Army. Maxwell Tweeted: 

“The point of my kneeling is not to disrespect our military, it's not to disrespect our Constitution, it's not to disrespect this country. ... But my kneeling is what is getting the attention because I'm kneeling for the people that don't have a voice. And this goes beyond the black community, and this goes beyond the Hispanic community, because right now we're having an indifference and a racial divide in all types of people. It's being practiced from the highest power that we have in this country, and it's basically saying that it's OK to treat people differently. My kneeling, the way I did it, was to symbolize that I'm kneeling for a cause, but I'm in no way or form disrespecting my country or my flag.”

And despite Trump’s plea that team owners respond to such protests by saying, “Get that son of bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!”, Maxwell’s team simply stated: “We respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.”

Now, either Trump and police union officials are too dim to understand Maxwell’s distinction between dissent and disloyalty or they refuse to accept it. I believe they understand it all too well. They understand the danger it poses to the status quo. They would rather pretend that these earnest expressions of protest constitute some existential threat to “American values.” But exactly what values? And who gets to make them? Is it an “American value” to have police largely unaccountable to the communities they serve? Is it an “American value” to have white supremacists infiltrate police forces? Is it an “American value” to allow citizens to labor under the oppression of financially predatory policing?

Those who took a knee this weekend, and the rest of us, owe our politicians and police only the amount of respect they have earned. When Trump encourages police officers to treat suspects harshly, and union officials do not immediately denounce it, neither Trump nor the unions should dare criticize the protests that follow. When the administration rejects policing reform and says federal consent decrees to ensure departments protect civil rights “can reduce morale of the police officers,” the president should not be surprised that those who object to systemic discrimination protest in the most public forums they can find. 

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Flickr)