George Carlin once said, “I don’t get all choked up about yellow ribbons and American flags. I consider them to be symbols, and I leave symbols to the symbol-minded.” But to many Americans they mean an awful lot, and President Donald Trump is using that to create even more divisiveness. In a tirade at a rally last weekend, Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.’”
Since then, social media and the American people have been deeply engaged in a conversation about the flag, the National Anthem, and the proper way to respect both. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick admirably forced the pervasive issue of police brutality during America’s national pastime last year, but that’s been completely replaced by Celebrity-in-Chief Trump’s voluminous ego and desire to distract the American people.
Kaepernick chose perhaps the most solemn, disruption-free way to raise the issue: by taking a knee during the National Anthem. This has gung-ho patriots in an absolute uproar, but their anger is perplexing. Taking a knee is a posture of humility. It’s the position people get knighted in. It’s certainly more respectful than wrapping a beer can in the flag. The reactions of the outraged give no indication of the calm, considerate protest taking place.
Folks working themselves into a frenzy have made no effort to understand the nature of the protest Kaepernick, who’s since been blacklisted by the NFL, began. Led by far-right idiots like Trump and FOX News personality Tomi Lahren, the protests are being cast as anti-American. It’s a despicable and deliberately dishonest simplification that only appeals to Americans who don’t want to think seriously about the important issue being raised: state-sanctioned violence against nonviolent citizens, especially black and brown ones.
There is no “acceptable” form of protest black people can use to get white people’s attention. Public sentiment today matches to a striking degree public sentiment about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the various civil rights protests of the 1960s. Conservatives are outraged when protesters smash windows, certainly, but also when they march, block traffic, hold signs, and even when they quietly take a knee.
It isn’t the form of protest that has conservatives aggravated, it’s that the protesters are making them confront realities they don’t want to confront. These athletes are using their platform to speak out for those who don’t have a platform of their own. The only option some Americans have for making their voice heard is to disrupt life in traffic, or in a park, or in the wholesome, all-American, weekly broadcast of physical brutality known as the NFL.
Veterans and soldiers on social media and in the news have staked out positions on both sides. Some say, essentially, “I fought for the First Amendment, which includes the right to peacefully protest.” Others argue, “I risked my life and they don’t even have the decency to show the flag respect.” The protests have nothing to do with the military, but anyone who fought a war to make people obediently salute a flag in precisely the manner they find most appropriate fought for the wrong reasons.
The fever pitch around this issue is way out-of-whack to its actual significance. But kudos to Trump. He successfully turned an issue that was about state violence and discrimination into one about proper posture during a song. If the NFL’s ratings plummet, so much the better. Hopefully all the sports nuts with sudden free time on their hands will take a moment to learn about the issue being raised by Kaepernick and realize what a cheap huckster the president is.