Whose Flag Is It Anyway?

There are two things that every single American should strive to protect: the freedoms of citizens against a tyrannical government and the lives of all individuals. Two things that are not on this list and which actually threaten these protections for minorities in the United States are the American national anthem and the feelings of white people.

First of all, the national anthem doesn’t even slap. Smash Mouth’s “All Star” has more musical nutrition in one verse than the entirety of the Star Spangled Banner. In the anthem’s defense, forming patriotic ideals based on a song written by a known slave owner (Francis Scott Key) accurately depicts the foundation of racism and exploitation upon which the United States is built. To be perfectly candid, vapid declarations of loyalty to a nation that symbolizes freedom and equality are meaningless when our history has been founded upon the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, and the exploitation of immigrant labor.

Someone who has been shining a light on state-sanctioned violence against Black Americans is  Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers. In August 2016, Kaepernick sat on the bench during the National Anthem at the start of the NFL preseason. At the 49ers’ preseason game on September 1, 2016, Kaepernick decided to kneel as opposed to sitting — igniting the #TakeAKnee movement that stirred viewers across the nation.

In September 2017, a whole year after Kaepernick’s first protest, President Donald Trump blasted NFL players in a freewheeling rally speech, complaining that they were “ruining the game” and “disrespecting the flag.”

“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. He’s fired!’” said Trump. “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”

Like Trump, a vast number of white Americans have taken offense to the #TakeAKnee movement, outraged at the disrespect of a flag and a song. Some have even interpreted the protests as disrespectful to veterans, believing soldiers serve and protect everything that the stars and stripes symbolize and that to show ignorance to the American flag is to show apathy for veterans.

In October 2017, Vice President Mike Pence walked out during the National Anthem as a planned publicity stunt. This claim was supported by his tweet of a photo which was poorly edited to look like it was taken that day despite being taken 2 years before and posted on the same account. An anonymous senior Pence official confirmed to reporters that this was planned beforehand.

The White House issued the statement, “I left today’s Colts game because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem. At a time when so many Americans are inspiring our nation with their courage, resolve, and resilience, now, more than ever, we should rally around our Flag and everything that unites us. While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem. I stand with President Trump, I stand with our soldiers, and I will always stand for our Flag and our National Anthem.”

What recent critics of the movement do not talk about is the purpose and meaning behind the protest. If our courageous patriots really fight and die to protect the freedoms and rights assured by the United States of America, then why has there been a systemic withholding of these freedoms and rights to a whole American community?

What people fail to mention — and instead clutter the topic with insubstantial declarations of performative patriotism — is that Kaepernick knelt because of the rights withheld from black Americans. Kaepernick knelt because black lives matter.

“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. “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 Black Lives Matter movement was formed in 2013 as a Twitter hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, after police officer George Zimmerman was acquitted for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old walking home with an Arizona tea and a bag of skittles. Over the years, police officers have continued to escape consequences for the killings and mistreatment of black people. In August 2014, Darren Wilson of the Ferguson PD in Ferguson, Missouri, who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, was exonerated twice of wrongdoing. In July 2014, Daniel Pantaleo, along with four officers of the NYPD, pinned and put Eric Garner in a chokehold. Garner repeated “I can’t breathe” eleven times before he died. Pantaleo was exonerated of homicide. In July 2015, Sandra Bland was found hanged in her jail cell after being wrongfully arrested for a traffic citation. Texas state trooper Brian Encinia, who stopped her but failed to follow proper traffic stop procedure, was charged with perjury regarding the circumstances of Bland’s death. Encinia had his charges dropped after he agreed to quit law enforcement.  

According to data collected by the Guardian, in 2016, black men aged 15-34 were 9 times more likely than other Americans to be killed by law enforcement officers. To reduce the Take A Knee movement as protests against the Trump administration or the American flag not only makes zero sense — as the protests began during Obama’s administration and have just continued until this political dumpster fire of a year — but also ignores the message about the danger and injustice of unregulated police killings. This ignorance has only served to reveal an apathy for people of color and, in turn, show America’s true colors: red, white, and racist.

Furthermore, the reaction to a protest of the flag is a phenomenon in and of itself – the United States has a perverted sense of patriotism based purely off of performance and quoting dead racist white guys. It doesn’t occur to our leaders that caring about military veterans means more than using them as a political prop to push a racist agenda.

In 2010, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs in a report prepared by the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, veterans only accounted for 10% of the adult population but 16% of the homeless population. Additionally, 51% of individual homeless veterans have disabilities, 50% have serious mental illness, and 70% have substance abuse problems. The 2014 minority veterans report by the US Department of Veterans Affairs found that racial minorities made up about 22% of the veteran population, the largest group being black veterans at 11%.

But sure, let’s reduce veteran issues to football players kneeling during a song that has very little symbolic credibility in the face of racial profiling and police brutality. Go ahead and treat military veterans as a single constituency to pull out of a hat in order to claim some political mantle. What’s more disrespectful to military veterans: football players kneeling during a song, or Trump telling the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson that the 25-year-old fallen soldier “knew what he signed up for?”

At the core of the media attention on #TakeAKnee, there is actually a very simple sentiment that can be difficult to swallow. Opponents of the protests refused to address the systemic discrimination of black people. Instead, they bemoaned the disruption of their status quo. Sports fans want to consume the entertainment that black athletes provide for them without addressing the sociopolitical circumstances that affect the athletes’ lives and liberties. The protests made viewers have to face the fact that black athletes aren’t packaged products made specifically to cater to their limited world view.

People of color are constantly aware of the social, political, and economic conditions that surround their skin color. These are conditions in which black children are slaughtered in the streets by the men hired to serve and protect them; the verdict for whether these men face consequences remains up in the air. When people who have the privilege of turning their eyes away — whose lives aren’t affected by discrimination and racial profiling — are confronted with even the least bit of evidence that racism exists, they are prone to get upset. This is how white privilege works.

If you’re facing personal opposition to those taking a knee, dig deep to pinpoint where your apathy for people of color is coming from. Or don’t. If you’re entitled to your opinion, then football players are entitled to peaceful protest that sheds light on racism and police brutality. For those who feel that Colin Kaepernick and others taking a knee are protesting disrespectfully or inappropriately — or even just feel uncomfortable watching these protests happen — here’s some good news: hurt feelings don’t matter. Black lives do.