By: Brad Kneeland
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”….
…..or to not to say it.
San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines this week when he refused to stand during the national anthem before his football game against the Green Bay Packers. In an interview after the fact, Kaepernick stated that he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color” and that “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."
The response has appeared to be mixed between those in strongly in support of Kaepernick’s decision and those strongly against it. On the one hand, you have people angry, saying that men and women have died serving the flag and to not show the flag respect is to show the sacrifice of our fallen troops disrespect. On the other hand, you have people supporting his decision, saying that the sacrifice made by these brave men and women was done so that Kaepernick could have the freedom to salute or not salute our flag. I’ve been thinking about this off and on since he made his statement and, while I can’t pretend to understand the context in which Colin Kaepernick is protesting (from the perspective of a black man), I can appreciate the feelings he feels towards the systematic oppression that him and millions others face from our country.
This past June, I sat glued to my computer in Montana watching the horrific events of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando unfold, lump in my throat, tears in my eyes. In what would become the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history, 49 people would be killed and another 53 would be injured in a horrific act of violence and hatred inflicted upon the LGBTQ and Latino community. In the preceding days, the numbness and grief I felt for my fallen brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community was replaced by anger and rage towards every politician, commentator and average, ordinary person, who called this “an attack on America”. More often than not, the people referring to this act of terrorism as “an attack on America” were the same people who considered the LGBTQ community to be of a lesser tier in our society- that we weren’t deserving of the same basic human rights or dignity afforded to everyone else. I still feel that anger thinking back to everyone talking about how we need to come together as a nation- that what happened was an attack on America.
There are many times where I don’t feel like an American. I don’t feel like an American when I can be denied housing for being gay. I don’t feel like an American when I can be fired from my job for being gay. I don’t feel like an American when a bakery can refuse to make me a wedding cake or a restaurant can refuse to serve me for holding hands with my boyfriend. I don’t feel like an American when politicians legislate my rights and empower those who spew such hateful rhetoric to deny me services, and I didn’t feel like an American in June, watching the injured wheeled out of that club into ambulances, knowing that I couldn’t donate blood to help save their lives. There are so many times where I don’t feel like an American, where I don’t want to stand for our flag or say the pledge of allegiance, because to so many people, I am not of equal value; that I am not worthy of the same dignity and respect. How can I be proud of a system that oppresses so many; one that demoralizes us and tries to reinforce a system of “separate but equal”- a system where I am not on the same footing as others, where I come upon barriers preventing me from achieving that level of equality, but where I am still expected to take pride in being an American.
I can’t begin to pretend I understand the context in which Colin Kaepernick is experiencing the oppression that he is. What I do have is immense empathy for what him and too many others have had to go through. To not feel like an American, to not stand for the flag, to not say the pledge of allegiance…this is not to say that we hate our country. I wake up every morning so proud to be an American, for it is only in this nation that I would be allowed to feel and express the frustrations I have for our nation and for those who seek to reinforce the systematic oppression that devalues too many and stunts our ability to live up to our full potential. I can’t help but find the humor in people upset at “disrespect” for our flag when many of them stand silently at the disrespect inflected upon our citizens. If we could take the anger we feel towards Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest and channel that anger into something a bit more outrageous (wealth inequality, gun violence and racial profiling were the first three to come to my mind), maybe we could revive some of that lost pride in our nation? Maybe we could revive the American Dream that has become so elusive for so many?
My final thoughts on Colin Kaepernick are this: whether you agree with him sitting during the national anthem or not, he is within his right as an American to do so. The ability say what you want (or to say nothing at all) is one of the greatest rights guaranteed to our people. You don’t have to agree with what he is saying- but you should agree with his right to say it. And if you are somebody who is enraged, upset and mad as hell at him for refusing to stand, you are likely someone privileged enough to never understand his reasoning for sitting in the first place.