“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
If you live in the United States or have ever heard anyone from the U.S. speak, chances are this quote sounds familiar to you. It’s something American students learn about before we even learn to tie our shoes. We memorized the five protections that were guaranteed by the first item in the Bill of Rights: freedom of religion, speech (or expression), press, peaceful assembly and petition of the Government. It seemed so simple then. But now, it seems that many cannot seem to agree what constitutes freedom of expression.
The “Take a Knee” movement first caught public eye when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made the decision to kneel during the national anthem back in 2016, in protest of the continued oppression of African Americans and the lack of justice for victims of police brutality. He stated, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. … 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.”
A year later, many celebrities, comedians and athletes have joined Kaepernick in kneeling during the national anthem, but President Trump and many on the far right are not too happy about this. Trump himself has stated that the NFL should “fire” players that choose to kneel during “The Star Spangled Banner” because it is “disrespectful” to servicemen and women in the military and to our nation, a stance that is supported by a number of conservatives. This strikes me as interesting as those on the right are often very quick to defend the First Amendment when it suits their agenda. In particular, the section on religious freedom has been used countless times as a defense to enact policy that restricts the rights of homosexual, transgender and other minority groups of Americans, even when this is clearly not protected by the law.
Back in August, white supremacists were allowed to march in and assemble under the guise of exercising their First Amendment Rights. Of course, the First Amendment, like all amendments, is not absolute. The 1952 Supreme Court in Beauharnais v. Illinois permitted the state of Illinois to make it illegal to exhibit any writing, sentiment or pictures portraying the “depravity, criminality, unchastity, or lack of virtue of a class of citizens of any race, color, creed or religion.” This case and other hate speech restrictions have made it perfectly clear that the KKK and other white supremacist groups are not always protected by the First Amendment. Despite the rage that Trump displayed over the NFL protests, he didn’t seem to have the same conviction over the rally in Charleston, South Carolina. He stated, “I think there is blame on all sides.”
The difference in the President’s reaction and even the reaction of many Americans is quite alarming. When there is more outrage over athletes protesting injustice than there is over real injustice and hate, there is a problem.
Many will say that this discrepancy is not about race; it is a matter of respect to the military. Veteran Scooby Axson disagrees. In a piece for Sports Illustrated, he writes, “I don’t feel disrespected if a person chooses not to stand for the national anthem. I fought for your ability to make that choice.”
While we cannot responsibly point to any individual and expect them to speak for the entire military, the sentiment still stands. We often speak about the liberties that our military fights to protect. Why then can we not celebrate people of color’s decision to exercise their rights to make a statement about injustice the same way that we allow white supremacist groups to spread hate speech and fear into the hearts of Americans?
It seems that when you break it down, conservative NFL fans are upset because their players have the audacity to step out of their roles as entertainers and burden them with the reality of injustice. Many on the right claim that this movement is anti-American, but I believe that kneeling during the national anthem is an act of pure patriotism. After all, it takes a true patriot to care enough about their country to work to improve it. Patriotism does not simply mean loving your country as it is. It means being optimistic and working everyday to “form a more perfect union.”
Barbara Ehrenreich sums this idea up nicely: “Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.” Take a knee. Raise hell.