Taking a Knee

Colin Kaepernick is a trailblazer and a hero, and I’m waiting for some team to have the the integrity and balls to break the ironically dubbed “blackball.” But he certainly wasn’t the first to not stand for the National Anthem. With the exception of a brief time when my son was young and I didn’t want him in uncomfortable situations, I, for one, have refused to rise my entire adult life. For the record, I don’t salivate on command either. There are those who call such defiance disrespectful to the principles that the flag stands for, to our military and our way of life. This charge is usually met with knee-jerk (pun intended) denial and deflection. I stand, or, rather, sit, guilty as charged.

It only came to my attention during this current debate, although it should have been no great surprise, that the National Anthem was written by a proud slave owner. In fact, one of the original stanzas applauds the death of slaves fighting to free themselves. This issue is about denial, but not the pressured denial of those who protest. It’s about the denial of our history and present, the denial of life and liberty, and the denial of the right of free thought and expression that, among its stains, the flag allegedly stands for.

The Anthem is a celebration of war. As detestable a human trait as I believe war is, I don’t dispute the existence of just wars. There are times, when all else fails, that call for self-defense or the defense of others against tyranny, invasion or genocide. It’s just that I have seen no such American wars in my lifetime. Wars to install dictators or puppet regimes that will serve American corporate and geopolitical interests, whether in Latin America, Southeast Asia or the Middle East, simply don’t count. And as for the others, could we have become free of England without massive bloodshed, like the Canadians for example, and was the Revolutionary War all that freeing for African or Native Americans? Could we have avoided armed conflict and virtually indiscriminate bombing in Serbia by supporting the strong non-violent resistance instead of some shadow army likely CIA-connected, and have we stemmed the tide of terrorism through our wars throughout the Muslim world, or, rather, created, armed, inflamed and perpetrated it?

We are told we must “support the troops.” To the extent that “the troops” is defined as the collection of individual soldiers, the reply should be to stop waving the flag and bring them the hell home. But an ex-serviceman who visited our College a number of years ago made a more precise distinction. He said he does not “support the troops” because that implies supporting the mission. Rather, he supports the soldiers individually and selectively. Some perform acts of heroism, some atrocities, many just survive. In general, though, he offered, they are not heroes as the chicken hawks in high places like to call them, they are not villains as some of us during the Vietnam era treated them, they are victims. They are victims, often, of a system that has given them no better means to pursue the illusion of the American dream by being able to afford College and earn a decent living. And they are victims, too, of the incessant indoctrination they have been subjected to, by self-serving politicians and the controlled media, and through the imposition of “The Pledge of Allegiance” on captive audiences of children and “The National Anthem” on unquestioning audiences of football enthusiasts.

To remain seated, or kneel, or raise a clenched fist, is defiance against hypocrisy. It is an act of the free and a stance of the brave. It’s a response to the legacy of denial of freedom to African Americans, from historic slavery, Jim Crow and lynchings to modern racial injustice, police killings and bigotry used as a political wedge issue, and to the moral cowardice our society continues to show in being unwilling to face, acknowledge and end it. Protest has always been attacked, regardless of the form or timing. Lest we forget, as so many prefer to, in his time Dr. King was vilified and punished, ultimately lethally. Any attempts to dismantle, or even discuss White privilege is seen by the majority as a threat against something God-given and unquestioned, to be met with denial, of its legitimacy and its right of expression. Yes, regardless of what too many owners and millionaires now feel compelled to say, this is indeed a protest against what the flag has, in reality, in too many people’s realities, stood for. And that’s why we must continue to kneel, especially us White folks, until all can rise.

Athletes take a knee when they are hurt and tired. We should all be.