The Right to Take a Knee

September 23rd, 2017

Controversy continues to swirl around a handful of NFL players who take a knee during the National Anthem, a peaceful, silent, and non-violent protest initiated last year by quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In interviews, Kaepernick and others say that the aim of these very visible demonstrations of non-compliance is to draw attention to racial inequities throughout society, particularly in the areas of policing and incarceration.

At the heart of the controversy is this question: What should we honor more – the symbols and anthems of our nation, or the core values which its symbols and anthems celebrate? In other words, what’s more important – a ceremony? Or actual justice?

In a fiery speech last night in Alabama, President Trump made his views on the matter known when he bellowed, “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!’”

The crowd roared its approval.

What’s really going on here?

Free speech and honest to God liberty aren’t about upholding the status quo. Protest is a constitutional right, as is adherence to individual conscience. The flag, the National Anthem, and the entire apparatus of the U.S. military are all about protecting the Constitution and the liberty of individuals. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his immortal Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it…”

In other words, in this beautiful system of government we’ve inherited, individuals matter more than the state, and in fact, the sole function of the state is to protect and uphold the inherent rights of individuals, rights which the state did not grant and cannot expunge, rights which came directly from the Creator, or if you’re an atheist, (which you have every freaking right to be), they are simply inherent in human nature.

This is what the flag and the Constitution and the National Anthem and the U.S. military are all about. If you want to really respect our military members and the sacrifices they’ve made, act like a free person.

And when it becomes clear that certain governmental functions, like policing and incarceration policy, no longer serve the inherent dignity and liberty of all Americans, it is the moral obligation of her citizens to take action to “alter or abolish” the offending policy.

But here’s the rub. Protests are designed to make you uncomfortable. They’re by their very nature “rude.” Sit-ins, marches, traffic-blocking, boycotts, and taking a knee at NFL games during the National Anthem are intentionally disruptive and impolite. And deeply, profoundly patriotic – way more patriotic than standing up, removing your cap, and lip-synching “The Star Spangled Banner” because you can’t remember all the words.

What’s behind Trump’s umbrage? I think it’s this. What’s particularly galling to Trump and his base about these protests is that they are largely protests against white supremacy. How dare these uppity people of color embarrass us by acting free?

Notice this – Trump always sides with the oppressor, never with the oppressed. Two words: Joe Arpaio. And as Maya Angelou reminded us, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

I’m glad I live in the land of the free, where genuflecting in deference to the empire is not compulsory.  And where individuals matter more than the apparatus of the state. That, to me, smells like liberty.

Peter Bolland

Peter Bolland is the philosophy and humanities department chair at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California where he teaches world religions, Asian philosophy, world mythology, and ethics. Bolland is also a columnist for both Unity Magazine and the San Diego Troubadour. An award winning singer-songwriter and poet, Bolland draws on the world’s wisdom traditions as a frequent lecturer and performer throughout the San Diego region.
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