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The sacred institution of protest

Members of the Detroit Lions take a knee during the playing of the national anthem prior to the start of the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field on September 24, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan
(Photo credit Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

There’s basically nothing that black people are allowed to do to protest racial injustice.

This isn’t news. Marching in the streets is a no-go, because no matter how peaceful the march, it will be treated as a riot and you’ll be dismissed as a violent thug. (If there isn’t enough footage or activity to portray it as a riot, it’ll be ignored entirely.) So no marching. No protest t-shirts, either, or hoodies, or holding your hands in the air. No tweeting. No not going to the White House. Or kneeling.

Just kneeling.

Not saying anything. Not making any noises or motions that might interrupt someone else in their observance of a patriotic ritual. Not wearing a t-shirt or holding a sign that someone might read when they’re supposed to be gazing reverently upon our flag. Not even sitting comfortably on the bench, man-spreading and drinking a Gatorade while everyone else stands at attention. Just rising as everyone else rises, and then sinking to one knee as everyone else stays risen.

On the official list of protest methods, in ascending order of offensiveness, “being silent on one knee” is #3, closely behind “hand-delivering a petition to a representative’s office.” But this isn’t an issue of violent or nonviolent protest. It isn’t even an issue of patriotism. It’s an issue of POC speaking aloud about the painful subject of police brutality and bringing it to a place where white people would rather pretend that our country doesn’t have any problems, that it’s a bastion of equality and happiness for everyone except Cowboys fans. Athletes should just shut up and play.

Except obviously even shutting up isn’t enough, as evidenced over the past weeks by a growing number of players joining the protest, and the President of the United States has criticized them openly and at length and in colorful language, saying the NFL should fire every “son of a bitch” who “disrespects our flag.”

And then he tweeted a lot more, because that’s what he does, and then players from 25 teams, as well as coaches and owners, either took a knee or stood with arms linked in solidarity while the anthem was played (some in support of the cause, others in a well-meaning but arguably misguided middle finger to Trump himself). (Fun fact: Trump later tweeted that kneeling was bad but linking arms is okay, I guess because if rich white guys are doing it, he can’t get too worked up.)

So if you’re currently pissed that all of these “ungrateful” players are disrespecting our whatever, this is for you.


Here’s a thing: The flag is a symbol. It’s a piece of fabric that symbolizes something. And, as with any other symbol, it carries some inherent meaning, but much of its meaning is imbued by the person looking at it. If you see it as a symbol of our military, or of America’s history, a Star-Spangled Banner yet waving amid rockets’ red glare, then to you, that’s what these men are disrespecting.

But that’s not what’s happening.

It’s not what’s happening because you don’t have the authority to imbue that symbol objectively with your meaning. And a lot of people see it not as a symbol of just the military but of everything our country is and everything it stands for. The flag of the USA and the republic for which it stands, right? And if some people see it as a symbol of a country that has done tremendous amounts of harm to them throughout said history, and that abuses them now through the authority of law enforcement, and thus they decline to stand and revere it, that’s their right. You look at the flag and see liberty. They look at it and see black lives lost at the hands of people who vowed to protect liberty.

It’s not about the flag. (One of my favorite comments on the subject has been, “Thinking the NFL players are ‘protesting the flag’ is like thinking Rosa Parks was protesting public transportation,” and if anyone can find me a source for it, I would very much like to give that person credit.) It’s about the fact that, to them, the flag doesn’t represent all of the romantic ideals you’ve assigned to it. Colin Kaepernick says that he’ll stop protesting when the flag “represents what it’s supposed to represent.”

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “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.”

These protesters aren’t refusing to honor the military-centric meaning you’ve applied to it — they’re refusing to honor the human-centric meaning they have every right to apply. They’re not disrespecting the flag, the anthem, or the military — they’re disrespecting the institutional racism that the flag represents to them. Theoretically, they have as much justification to get mad at you for honoring that flag as you do to get mad at them. But notice that they generally haven’t, because they’ve had more important things to focus on than fabric.

tl;dr: You don’t get to dictate what that flag symbolizes to others, and you don’t have the right to get pissed when someone sees it as a symbol of something else.

Respecting the troops

Just because I know this is a huge thing for you, we’ll take just a minute to talk about respecting the troops, and their sacrifice, and what they’ve fought for. We’ll talk about the meaning you ascribe to the flag — freedom and liberty and such. Like one of our most precious liberties: freedom of speech. Freedom to criticize our government — that’s one of the main reasons we have a First Amendment in the first place. The founders inscribed that as our first enumerated, protected right because they wanted to ensure that we would never be punished for criticizing the government like they were. It’s the right, essentially, to protest the marginalization of POC by the state. (Including by just kneeling. Does it not cause you any cognitive dissonance to get this pissed off about someone kneeling?)

When we talk about the sacrifice of our veterans in protection of our freedom and our way of life (and that’s what they’re fighting and dying for, not for the literal flag), that’s the freedom the founders were talking about. So what you’re talking about is protesters showing respect for that sacrifice by not exercising their freedom. By shutting up and showing reverence on command, sincere or not, like in some of the very countries those veterans have been fighting against. “I honor you by making your sacrifice meaningless.” Sounds great.

And if you aren’t willing to accept that from me — a civilian, but also the granddaughter of veterans just as much as many of you are the grandchild of veterans — maybe you’ll accept it from actual veterans — and police officers — who support the protesters.

If a 97-year-old veteran of multiple wars is willing to get all the way on the ground in support of civil rights and racial justice (and you know that took, like, half an hour), you have to ask yourself whether this protest is really about a flag and an anthem or about something far more important.

The origins of the protest

The current kneeling protest was actually devised out of respect for the troops. Initially, Kaepernick’s protest had been sitting on the bench while the anthem was played. An Army veteran, Nate Boyer, reached out to him to say that while he respected and supported Kaepernick’s cause, that method of protest was disrespectful to our men and women in uniform. Kaepernick listened and took him seriously, and together, they worked out a way for him to convey his message while still showing respect for the troops.

“We were talking to him about how can we get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from pride in our country but keep the focus on what the issues really are,” Kaepernick said after the game. “As we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee because there are issues that still need to be addressed and there was also a way to show more respect for the men and women that fight for this country.”

Boyer also explained the decision.

“We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates,” Boyer says. “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.”


“[Kaepernick was v]ery receptive. He said, ‘I think that would be — I think — I think that would be really powerful,'” Boyer recalls. “And, you know, he asked me to do it with him. And I said, ‘Look, I’ll stand next to you. I gotta stand though. I gotta stand with my hand on my heart. That’s just — that’s just what I do and where I’m from.'”

The protest was never about the flag, the anthem, or the military. Kaepernick has always made it clear that that’s not what it’s about. He and a former Green Beret worked together specifically to find a protest that wasn’t disrespectful in that way — a way that he and a veteran could stand together, protesting racism while honoring the troops, even if he himself wasn’t actually standing.

But some people will never be satisfied. Some people will reject Kaepernick’s intent and deep consideration because that’s the only way they can stay angry at him. That’s not about him — it’s about them. And it’s not about respect for the troops, either.

(Stand and deliver)

(Incidentally, do you stand respectfully when the national anthem plays and you’re in the comfort of your living room? Or do you only do it when you’re in a crowded stadium with 70,000 people around you to see it? Do you do at least as much as the men who get off their butts when the anthem plays, even if it’s just to kneel while everyone else stands? Or do you sit, gripe briefly about Christina Aguilera’s performance — and just consider that, that you lump a group of men protesting racial injustice into the same rage-pool as a pop singer who flubbed her lyrics — and go back to your discussion of your team’s chances for the playoffs? Yes, granted, this is your year, except for Cowboys fans, but it’s also your flag they’re honoring, right?)

What it’s really about

I recognize that it’s very important to your peace of mind to see this as a matter of patriotism. If you allow yourself to see and consider their protest for what it’s truly about, you’re forced to go to some pretty dark places that you almost certainly don’t like to go. If you were stopped by the police for the most minor infraction — or even for nothing at all — would you be able to calmly and obediently follow instructions? Or would you react with confusion or fear, protest your innocence, try to figure out what’s happening and what the outcome might be? Can you sincerely say that selling a loose cigarette or having a broken taillight warrants a death sentence just because a person reacted that way? Can you say that a man who was running away, or begging for his life on the ground, was such a threat that death was the only possible solution?

If your spouse or child or friend died that way, would you say, “Well, I’m sure going to miss him, but I guess he shouldn’t have struggled as the police choked him to death”?

If you’d seen people like you die in police custody, would you be able to say, “Those people had it coming. I feel perfectly comfortable allowing myself to be taken away now and working everything out later, trusting that I couldn’t possibly end up like them”?

To the protesters, those things — not liberty and freedom — are a defining element of the republic for which the flag stands. And when they choose not to revere the flag, it’s because those things are not worthy of reverence. It’s understandable that, in an effort to avoid emotional discomfort, you’d want to escape the true meaning of the protest by pretending it’s about abstract symbols and not people’s lives. It’s a selfish, self-centered, heartless thing to do, but I can understand why you’d want to avoid the discomfort.

Taking a knee

Listen, I’m sorry these men have found a method of protest that can’t be twisted into thuggishness or lawlessness and dismissed out of hand. That must be very frustrating. These players are protesting very publicly, and without any reparable property damage or public inconvenience to point to, and now you’re stuck with manufactured harm, ostensibly to a sacred institution — our flag! Our troops! America! — as a focus for your outrage.

(Congrats, btw, to the propagandists — you’ve chosen something that your base feels guilty about ignoring 99 percent of the time, making them that much more vehement when they do speak out. Good job. And congrats, too, to all of the people falling for it — they got you good.)

You’ve probably argued that you fully support their right to protest — just not in this way. You can’t name any other ways that are acceptable to you, but this isn’t one of them.

The truth is, there’s no way a POC can protest that you’ll find acceptable, because you don’t want to hear their protests. You don’t want to accept that your country isn’t without flaws, that some of your fellow citizens suffer actual oppression. (Some of you don’t want to get that feeling, deep down, that you could add your voice to their valid protest and you’re choosing not to.) Seeing people kneel during a televised football game — just kneeling, not even sitting but kneeling, itself a pose of respect, something that was cool when Tim Tebow does it to celebrate a touchdown but is suddenly hugely offensive when black men are doing it to protest injustice — is painful to your eyes, and so you have to scrabble for some way to demonize it.

The truth is, for some people, the only acceptable way for POC to protest is invisibly. If you don’t have to acknowledge the existence of their protest in any way, if you don’t ever have to wonder even a little if maybe their cause might be just the tiniest bit valid, if you can go through life thinking that everyone agrees and is happy except for Cowboys fans, you’ll be cool with that kind of protest.

But invisible protests are like invisible bra straps: No matter how much you try to hide them, everyone knows they’re there. Everyone knows that your society isn’t naturally perky and bouncy and carefree — that it’s being held up by a hardworking force that will be acknowledged whether you want it to or not.

The players are going to keep kneeling, and in greater numbers. They’re going to keep protesting racial injustice, and it will continue to not have anything to do with our veterans or the starry spangledness of our banner. If you don’t want to see it, the best thing to do is to support them, until the flag really does represent what it’s supposed to represent. But if you won’t do that, if you won’t acknowledge their pain, if you won’t focus on anything but yourself, at least recognize that by exercising their right to protest and by standing up for their own freedom, they’re honoring our veterans more than anyone who wraps themselves in an American flag and tells them to shut up and play.

Required Reading:

Doreen St. Felix, What Will Taking the Knee Mean Now?

“The kneel will now become a sign of opposition to Trump,” the journalist David Corn tweeted, after photos of the Wembley game began to circulate. This, for better or worse, is true. Trump’s talent lies in reorienting conversation around the shocking fact of his Presidency. Ironically, he has made protest, or the look of it, appealing to one of the most politically stagnant organizations in the country. The writer Zoe Samudzi clarified, in an all-caps tweet, that black resistance to anti-blackness does not, in fact, revolve around Trump. But already, taking the knee, which is currently ballooning as a hashtag, is gaining multiple, confused meanings — ones different from, and sometimes contradictory to, what Kaepernick meant by the gesture.

Jelani Cobb, From Louis Armstrong to the N.F.L.: Ungrateful as the New Uppity

Yet the belief endures, from Armstrong’s time and before, that visible, affluent African-American entertainers are obliged to adopt a pose of ceaseless gratitude—appreciation for the waiver that spared them the low status of so many others of their kind. Stevie Wonder began a performance in Central Park last night by taking a knee, prompting Congressman Joe Walsh to tweet that Wonder was “another ungrateful black multi-millionaire.” Ungrateful is the new uppity.

Ernest Owens, Let’s not forget #TakeAKnee is about police brutality and race in America

I was never that much of an NFL fan to begin with (the league’s tone-deafness to domestic violence, its faulty account for CTE in athletic aggression), but supported the calls to boycott the NFL following Kaepernick’s blackballing. For any Black person to be ousted from their occupation as a result of standing up for other Black people should signal an automatic rejection of that employer. Consequently, NFL program ratings have dipped as the boycott has proven to hurt the league where it should. But after Trump’s antics, it seems as though he is once again front-and-center of an issue nobody asked him to partake in. Some bandwagon supporters are actually asking folks to watch the NFL to avenge Trump while also invoking #TakeTheKnee in their protest.

Sigh, this is why we can’t have nice things.

2 thoughts on The sacred institution of protest

  1. Great and thoughtful writing.

    The disgusting truth, though, is that nothing will get past a white racist. They know what they are. Their criticisms of any kind of peaceful protest are literally attempts to gaslight and deceive non-racists of whatever color, and to vive-signal their own reprehensible kind.


    Long article with much precedent. Relevant because racist assholes who squall about Second Amendment rights are so willing to deny the rights guaranteed by the other amendments to the Constitution. Wu covers the newsbot problem which gave us this ghastly admin and case law on trolling women journalists, offering suggestions on possible legal remedies.

    Sourced from (male) Lauren Weinstein’s excellent Network.

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