What does Free Speech Look Like?

It looks like Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem prior to a football game.

That might make you angry.  OK.  Of course, Kaepernick is no longer alone in taking a knee at the beginning of the national anthem.  The number of players who are doing it, for the same reasons, is increasing.   Fans are also joining in.  Their critics are dismissing it as some kind of racial “thing,” that is nothing more in their mind than “disrespecting the flag,” and of course, in the process, they are insulting the military and veterans who “fought and died for the flag.”

It’s not that.  Not even close, and you can figure that out by simply paying attention.

First of all, the veterans and military who fought, and died, in the service of our country were not fighting “for” the flag, which is a mere symbol of it.  They were fighting, and dying, and sacrificing, for the individual rights and freedoms that America stands for, including the right to freedom of expression, or free speech, guaranteed in the Constitution.  That is exactly what is being exercised by the NFL players taking a knee at the beginning of the national anthem.  They have the constitutional right to do so, and to define exactly what their actions are expressing.

Kaepernick, among some of the others, has made it very clear that from his perspective, his taking a knee is not intended as disrespect for either the anthem, or for the flag.  This is a protest aimed at injustice, mainly motivated by the frequent and high profile police shootings of African American men.  He’s been quite specific about it.  They’re protested peacefully, purposefully, and quietly, as opposed to some of their critics who have been rude, disrespectful, and intolerant.  Even if you completely disagree with the way they have chosen to protest, and with what they are protesting, that doesn’t excuse a rude, disrespectful demonstration of bad behavior, or name calling, or making accusations based on unfounded and mistaken perceptions.

These guys are protesting on behalf of people whom they feel are powerless and disenfranchised.  Of course, most of them are pretty well off, given the salaries in the NFL, and the more talented players, like Kaepernick, won’t ever have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.  Most of them realize how well off they have it, and if you bother to look into it, you’ll find that most of them use their advantages to help those who are disenfranchised, and impoverished in the economically disadvantaged communities where they’re from, or in the cities where they play.  Most of them are very generous with their fortunes, and with their time.  If you want to know how much, well, do a little research.

Most of them grew up in the ghettos and slums of America’s large cities.  Playing football was, for most of them, their way out.  They have a clear understanding of how it feels to experience discrimination, violence, fear and intimidation that is racially motivated.  They’ve experienced the injustice that we only know by looking at statistics, that African American males are far more likely to be suspected and profiled by police even when they haven’t committed a crime, and are far more likely to be treated more harshly by police than their Caucasian counterparts, twice as likely according to the facts.  Few of us have uncles and aunts, parents or grandparents, who lived in fear of being accused of a crime they didn’t commit, or of being subject to violence, threats of lynching, intimidation in the form of a burning cross, or a burning church.  Trayvon Martin, Anthony Lamar Smith, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray make it difficult to conclude that race no longer matters, and is no longer a factor in injustice.

Not all of the protests involving the perception of injustice surrounding these incidents, and others, have been peaceful, but these are.  They take a knee at the beginning of the anthem, thus making the point, and when it’s over, it’s over.  Putting personal constrictions on their actions, misinterpreting what they’re doing, or accusing them of “disrespecting the military” is misguided and mistaken. Not all of the military, or all of the veterans, are opposed to the actions being taken, in fact, many of them get it.  An increasing number of social media posts from military personnel and veterans who are very supportive of the way these players are going about their protest, are getting the word out.  Many of them also see, and have experienced,  the same kind of injustice.

Personally, I would very likely not choose to take a knee, or remain seated during the national anthem, as a means of protesting something I believed to be unjust.  But I’m a Caucasian male, almost 60, who grew up in small town, rural America and never worried much about being attacked and shot because I was walking through a housing complex where most of the residents were a different race, or being racially profiled and chased down by police, or being wrestled to the ground and suffocated because I didn’t hear a police officer’s command.  I’m also not an NFL player who realizes that he has a rare but powerful opportunity to draw attention to something that needs to be made right, because this is America.  The veterans and military personnel who defend this country also fought for the civil rights of those people for whom Collin Kaepernick, and the other NFL players who are taking a knee, are protesting.

Pay attention before you jump to conclusions.

 

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