By Audrey Barret
Since President Trump stated on Sep. 22 at a campaign rally in Alabama that owners of NFL teams should fire players who kneel during the national anthem, fans and politicians alike are defending either the players’ protests or criticizing their apparent disrespect for America.
“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,” Trump said, characteristically blunt and vulgar. This controversy began over the movement that started with Colin Kaepernick.
While private team managers do have the power to fire a player for conduct they find improper, the protest is entirely legal within the protections of the First Amendment. Symbolic speech, as well as verbal protests, is constitutional and necessary for a country to call itself democratic. In fact, literally burning the flag was deemed constitutional by the US Supreme Court; kneeling for the national anthem is no less “disrespectful.”
As American citizens, it is our duty to question the society around us in order to improve it. Kaepernick and his supporters kneel to protest a system of institutionalized racial injustice that mars the American ideal of a free and equal country. When the police attack their own citizens, evidently on the basis of color, citizens have the right to exhibit dissatisfaction with this government. Therefore, the players’ actions are, in truth, more patriotic than disrespectful.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said. “It would be selfish to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
On Sep. 25, President Trump tweeted that the issue isn’t about race: it is about “respect for our Country, Flag, and National Anthem,” insinuating that the NFL should do something to stop the protests. It is clear to me that he is misrepresenting the issue. The players are engaging in a long-practiced form of social protest, a continuation of the sit-ins and boycotts used during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Those citizens refused to follow the rules of a society they believed was unjust, which is exactly what the players are doing now: refusing to revere a flag that represents injustice. The president, however, is presenting this as an unpatriotic act and even extending it to a personal attack on his presidency, disregarding the fact that Kaepernick started his protest while Obama was still in office.
Although President Trump claimed his criticism had “nothing to do with race,” in his tweet on Sep. 25, he expands the boundaries of free speech for some people more than others. As Trevor Noah pointed out on the Daily Show, Trump said of the neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville that there were “some very fine people on both sides,” but called the football players protesting racism “sons of bitches.” It’s not a stretch to say that the white supremacist cause is able to exercise free speech to a greater extent than minority protesters: Trump tolerated the disgusting violence in Charlottesville, but was quick to call out peaceful protesters, just because he didn’t like their viewpoint. It’s no secret that Trump is not an ally of movements like Black Lives Matter, and it appears he is trying to use his political clout to stifle the speech he doesn’t want to hear.