Flag of Our Fathers: Why National Anthem Protests Shouldn’t be Controversial


fist08-05-2008b_001When I wrote my last piece on Colin Kaepernick’s protest, my thought at the time was, “Maybe I’m coming to this a bit late. But, I guess I’ll say something.”

Here we are, weeks later, and the protests of the US National Anthem are still occurring, and it’s still very controversial. It’s a bit surprising, but also quite sad, that this is controversial. Since tons has been said on this issue, I just want to convey a few thoughts:

First – Protesting the flag is not the same as protesting the military. When a flag and national anthem come to stand for military power and military power alone – that to question or protest the flag/anthem is taken as a direct assault on the military – then the line separating patriotism from nationalism has been crossed. The United States stands for far more than its military, so a failure to stand during a National Anthem wouldn’t necessitate a protest against the military.

Second – Protesting the flag/anthem isn’t even a protest against the United States as a whole. Someone can greatly appreciate and value the US, but also have some major issues with it. It’s like loving an alcoholic; you will love that person for reasons other than the alcoholism, but you’ll also “protest” certain parts of that person’s life that could enable that person’s alcoholism, or even do something that would get that person’s attention. That’s similar to what these protests are attempting to accomplish. We have a problem in our nation with how black people, especially black men, are treated in general and by authorities. That doesn’t make the US an evil place, or a horrible place, but it does mean we have a problem and we need to fix that problem. That certain elements of society want to deny and act like this problem isn’t there is why the protest is occurring, to cause a conversation on the treatment of minorities in this nation.

Third – There’s implicit racism in condemning these protests. The argument goes, “If ya’ll want to protest how you think you’re treated, then do it peacefully.” When there’s a riot, we tell minorities to be peaceful. When they protest peacefully en masse through nonviolence, we tell them not to be disruptive (such as blocking highways). When they then perform a silent protest during the National Anthem, we tell them that’s disrespectful and they ought to be forced to stand for patriotic displays (we’ll get to that). So then how are they to protest? The implicit message is, “You have nothing worth protesting over,” or, to be blunt, “You’re treated fine, get over it, and get used to it.” It delegitimizes the experience of millions of African Americans and other minority groups in the US. We assume that because we – as white people – have had a great experience in this nation that all others have had the same great experience.

Fourth – No one should be forced to make patriotic displays, because that’s not patriotism, that’s nationalism. A true patriot of the US will value free speech more than they value a song or piece of cloth. To want to take away someone’s free speech – even under the argument of “it’s a private industry so they can force people to do what they want” (they can’t, that’s called slavery and is illegal) – is the antithesis of America. What’s more insulting to those who died to protect our freedoms than failing to show proper reverence during a song is failing to show proper reverence towards the freedom we were granted by their deaths.

Fifth – Speaking of people who have died to secure our freedoms, those people are more than just the military and those who died in foreign wars. We forget, especially those of us who are white, that many civil rights activists were murdered attempting to secure justice in an unjust world. Their sacrifices, which made national news and swayed public opinion, helped secure your freedoms today as much as any military endeavor in which we’ve engaged. I add the emphasis because this is a point that is hardly ever made; people died to try and beget equality in this nation. When we ignore their sacrifices and attempt to further an entrench a system they died fighting against, we dishonor their memory. I’m a white male, but oppression is a cancer and it spreads and destroys. If oppression is not fought, if it is not combatted, then it will eventually spread to harm other people as well. Thus, even as a white male, I’m indebted to civil rights activists who fought an oppression that had limited liberty. In my debt, I am in no place to then question their children and their children’s children when they speak of the continued oppression they must suffer through; rather, I must pay my debt and continue the fight against that oppression.

Sixth – These are our friends and fellow Americans who are hurting. These are not strangers. Many white people who have black friends still don’t hear what their black friends go through, because they [black friends] are sick of being doubted and questioned. But make no mistake, African Americans go through a lot in this world, not just with the police. They’re followed in department stores, they’re treated differently when they want to purchase something, they have a harder time finding promotions or getting a good job, and the list goes on. There are statistics to back up every single one of these claims, but more than that, there are personal stories from people we know who can back up these claims. When the reality of the US today is only slightly better than the reality of the US 40-60 years ago, maybe that’s why protesting the anthem is a good thing.

Those are my thoughts on this issue. There’s no reason to get upset over someone kneeling or not participating in singing the national anthem. Ultimately, we’d do better to have a conversation over what our friends are facing rather than condemn them for not conforming in a way we like.