As most of the country is now aware, a provocative and controversial movement has been taking place during NFL games recently. On Aug. 14, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers made the radical decision to sit down as the United States national anthem played throughout the football stadium. This act of defiance did not receive national attention until the third time he carried it out at which point he released a statement explaining he will not stand for an anthem that does not equally represent every American citizen. In particular, Kaepernick wishes to bring to light the undeniable issue of oppression faced by Black Americans, specifically with regards to police brutality and other forms of institutional racism. Kaepernick asserts that when the national anthem represents everyone in America, and the American flag shows respect for everyone, he will stand for the anthem along with everyone else.
By September, Kaepernick had started to gain supporters who also either sat or took a knee during the anthem alongside him. By now, there are entire high school football teams who are kneeling in solidarity with Kaepernick and the oppressed racial minorities he is representing. If you have read or watched the news recently or browsed social media, I’m sure you have noticed a huge outrage from both the conservative and liberal side of the political spectrum. People regularly accuse Kaepernick of being disrespectful, unpatriotic, entitled or even racist. More troublingly, Kaepernick has even received death threats as the result of his demonstration.
Now, I have always been an American citizen, so I understand the natural inclination toward unbridled patriotism that resides in many of my fellow citizens’ hearts. However, I believe there has been a great misunderstanding when it comes to the function of our flag and national anthem. Kaepernick’s critics generally have been asserting that by refusing to stand during the Star-Spangled Banner, he is disrespecting millions of war veterans who apparently have fought or even have died fighting for our country. This is not about disrespect. Americans did not die for us to be forced to stand up for the anthem. On the contrary, one could argue that these heroes in fact died for our right to choose whether and how to show patriotism. They died protecting our rights as free people in a free country in which we are free to celebrate or criticize that country as we so choose. We cannot continue to laud ourselves as the “leaders of the free world” if acts of patriotism are mandated. In fact, I would argue that mandated patriotism is not patriotism at all—it is something closer to fascism.
The worst I can say about Kaepernick’s methods is that they haven’t yet stopped police officers from killing unarmed people of color, but the movement is still young. As more people refuse to stand for a flag that does not respect them as much as it asks to be respected, more will take notice of the great issue racism still is in America today. It is important to remember that this protest is a peaceful one—nothing is being hurt other than fragile jingoistic tendencies. Personally, I am delighted to see people in the public spotlight standing up for those who do not have a platform, and I believe that these protests can pave the way for actual change, especially with the election season being upon us. If you are still offended by Kaepernick’s subtle actions, I urge you to please peruse the American Constitution in order to remind yourself of exactly what rights those veterans you care so deeply about were actually fighting for. For everyone like me, I urge you to stay optimistic and never give up the fight, despite the tragedies and racist acts of violence that seem to scourge the United States daily. With people as influential and well-known as Colin Kaepernick on our side, social justice movements can only grow stronger.