Protest is Patriotism


The 45th president of the United States, in a profane rally rant intended to play to a crowd of voters in Alabama, invited owners of National Football League teams to fire players who took a knee during the national anthem. The ensuring firestorm has revealed that he does not understand what the central idea of the United States is. It has often been said that the United States is a country that is not built on ethnicity, rather, it is built on an idea and an ideal.
The idea is that citizens have both a right and a duty to craft a government that insures their human rights among those rights being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The ideal is that the nation is perfectible. The work of every generation is to work for a more perfect union.
The United States was founded in protest and in revolution. A decent respect for the opinions of humanity caused the founders to declare a political philosophy that would be a guide to those who came after them. Now is the time to remind ourselves of our foundational philosophy. The Declaration of Independence says:
“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 to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The Declaration speaks of the duty of human beings to throw off despotic governments. “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The power of life and death that police as agents of the states hold over citizens may be considered despotic when the officers who kill citizens are not brought to justice. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice ought to have been free to play with his toy gun alone on a playground in safety. Rather, he was shot by police within two seconds of them arriving on the scene. No one paid a legal price for this crime. And, there is a long list of black and brown men and women who have been killed by the police for no good reason and those police officers have paid no legal price.
This is the reason why Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem before games last year and why many of his colleagues in various sports in various level of sports joined his protest. He was doing his duty as a human being and as a citizen of the United States.
The ideal of the country is stated in the preamble to the Constitution of the United States:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The notion of a more perfect union takes us from the past into the present moment and allows us to project our sense of justice that ought to be into the future. When we think about a more perfect union the ideal is that our nation will be better today than it was yesterday and better tomorrow than it is today. The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and many who crafted the United States Constitution were slave holders, but they built a process of amendment into our founding document whereby we could expand liberty.
When we look around us and see a nation that is slipping into lazy patriotism, a patriotism that stands with hand over heart during the playing of the national anthem while agents of the state kill without legal consequences, it is the right, it is the duty of citizens to speak out. We want a future where police officers do not think that their badge is a license to kill. (Yes I know that policing is a hard job, and most police officers do their work well. However blue on black killing just keeps happening with no legal consequence. The nation ought not to remain silent.) This is when protest becomes patriotism.
The discussion around the act of taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem and the unfurling of the flag before various ball games has revealed a fetishizing of these national symbols. (That this is a rather recent phenomenon tied to payments by the Department of Defense to the NFL to foster recruitment into the military is another discussion.) They have become worship symbols representing the god of the nation state. When players do not perform the gestures of reverence that are expected by people who worship the state, then they must be banished. This has been the fate of Colin Kaepernick since no owner in the NFL has the courage to offer him a job even though his skills are far superior to quarterbacks who are still working for the NFL. Now the 45th president wants to banish any player who does not stand while the national anthem is being played.
He says he is doing this to honor the sacrifice of warriors who have fought and died, who have been seriously injured in our nation’s wars. He is wrapping divisive politics in the flag while hiding behind wounded warriors. Further, this is also too narrow a view of what these symbols represent and of what the nation is. The flag and the god-awful national anthem (that is the work of another day) represent the nation as a whole. The flag stands for a republic where we are striving for liberty and justice for all. When this does not exist, it is the right and the duty of citizens to call attention to injustice. Protest is patriotic. The flag stands for those of us who protest war, who work to keep our young men and women out of harm’s way, as much as it stands for those who have fought with it as a banner.
If the United States is truly the land of the free and the home of the brave, We the People ought to understand that when athletes or anyone else protest injustice, when they want to see killers brought to justice, when they protest a president who clearly does not understand the values of the nation he was elected to lead, whose politics is a politics of division not of unity, then it is our right and our duty to defend protestors and to elect new leadership when the next election comes.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”

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