Who Gets to Protest?


At one level, the furor precipitated by Donald Trump’s twitter attacks on professional athletes who kneel during the national anthem is a huge political distraction. While his losses pile up and the promised winning is nowhere to be seen, the President, as he so often does, has tried to change the subject.

His tirades, containing more than a tinge of racial overtones, certainly appeal to his political base. But they are also attracting some Americans who might not normally support him but agree on the importance of national symbols.  That fact alone guarantees he will keep up the attacks for quite some time.

Meanwhile, all the commentary on social medial and elsewhere that there are more important issues to be discussing–the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, the fate of yet another Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, an administration tax plan that will further exacerbate inequality in this country, a ransacking of environmental protections, and so much more–is exactly correct.

Yet, on the other hand–and there is always at least one more hand to consider–the right of citizens who happen to be professional athletes to protest racism in this country is not exactly a trivial issue.  Americans give up some rights when they join the U.S. military, but they certainly don’t relinquish their basic freedoms when they step on a football field or a basketball court or any other sport venue.

The constitutional issue is not a complicated one despite Trump’s bellowing.  That you could be fired from your job for expressing a political point of view is totally un-American.  That you are labelled a “son of a bitch” by the President is beyond despicable.

Trump’s behavior doesn’t surprise me.  In fact, despite his capacity to constantly further demean his office, nothing that he does should be seen as a surprise.  It’s just Trump being Trump.

What is dismaying, however, is that so many Americans have come to accept his ignorance, bullying and generally erratic actions.  He has contributed to a coarsening of politics which has made rational discourse, compromise and problem solving harder and harder to achieve.  It didn’t start with Trump, but he certainly put his foot on the accelerator.

I’m trying to understand why so many Americans are so disturbed by Colin Kaepernick’s protest or by that of large numbers of NFL players this past Sunday.  They weren’t engaged in violent protest.  They weren’t even engaged in civil disobedience, which generally involves being willing to accept the consequences of breaking a law that you believe to be unjust.  None of them burned a flag or trampled on one.

Rather, what we saw was a symbolic protest.  Let’s be clear.  The flag is not the same as our country or as the members of the military who fight  to defend us.  It is a symbol.   To assert, as Trump and others have done, that the players were disrespecting the country or the military is nothing but demagoguery.

As an American, you have every right to disagree with their actions, to criticize them, to boycott NFL games if that is the way you choose to express your political views.  Conceptually, those actions are no different from what the players did on Sunday.

Ken Burns’ newest documentary on the Vietnam War is particularly relevant to this debate.  Supporters of that tragic mistake used as one of their tactics questioning the patriotism of critics of the war and arguing that, somehow, their opposition was illegitimate.  In fact, those critics were right and the defenders of the war policy were tragically wrong.  We were lied to, the war policy was based on fallacies piled upon falsehoods covered in secrecy.

At a time that we have a president who blatantly disregards truth, fact and science, it is more important than ever not only to allow dissent, but, indeed, to encourage it.  Nothing could be more patriotic, more fundamentally American, than that.  Even those who disagree with the tactics of NFL players last Sunday should be vigorous defenders of their right to engage in those tactics.

No one was harmed.  It is actually ironic that those on the political right in this country invest enormous energy in criticizing what they call “political correctness.”  Their position on the NFL protests is merely another form of insisting on conformity that they would otherwise condemn.  Get over it.  There really are life and death issues facing the country.  Choosing to protest during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner is not one of them.