The American Flag Is the Lapel Pin on the Enforcers of Injustice

By Doctor Comrade

Colin Kaepernick's well publicized protest against police brutality and racial oppression has drawn the ire of numerous critics, who have called him disrespectful, unpatriotic, anti-American, and anti-veteran. But in these criticisms, I see nothing but thinly veiled racism on the part of white reactionaries who demand unending loyalty and subservience from a man of color. The language they use to criticize Kaepernick is truly Orwellian: they demand patriotism and respect toward the flag because the flag is a symbol of the Republic, and they do not see the irony in attacking Kaepernick's free speech and freedom of conscience.

Perhaps it's because of white privilege. Kaepernick's detractors think he's abusing the flag of the country that has so graciously granted him the right to protest in the first place. As if to ask, how dare he criticize this great country, which made him so successful? For their part, these critics seem to have no perspective on what the American flag symbolizes to many people, in this country and in others. And they fail to see that Kaepernick does not hate this country; he's engaged in a protest because he wants this country to be a better, safer, more equitable place to live. At the heart of the matter is the unlawful killing of black men. How could someone possibly be against ending that? I would hope that even the most conservative and reactionary individual would be against lynching because it's a hate crime. Is the killing of black men today any different than that?

This is what makes the discourse surrounding the sanctity of the flag and the national anthem so perplexing. Kaepernick's protest is practically a textbook definition of Free Speech as it was written by the Founding Fathers into the US Constitution. The very first sentence of the Bill of Rights guarantees the right to free speech, the right to protest, the right to demand redress, and by extension, the right to freedom of conscience. Dissent--it could be argued--is a quintessential American value, and it has a long and storied history in the US. The Declaration of Independence is a tremendous example: that although the King of England and the Parliament demanded American colonists' fealty during the financial crisis that followed the French and Indian War, the Founding Fathers issued a document which willfully and wholeheartedly declared that unending loyalty to an oppressive government is a violation of the most basic human rights.

If this is the case, then clearly Kaepernick is not disrespecting the people who fought for his freedoms. He's honoring them by putting those freedoms to good use. If you believe in Free Speech--as it was fought for by our veterans and as it was written into our founding documents--then you have to respect Kaepernick for what he's doing, even if you don't agree. He's putting his career on the line--like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other lesser-known athletes--to make a political statement about something that is important to him. And because he's not a star player, he's actually risking more because this protest may be the end of his career. Star players, like Seattle's Russel Wilson or the NBA's LeBron James, have relatively safe jobs, so they risk very little when they protest. Kaepernick, on the other hand, is a borderline player who may be out of the league next year.

And on the topic of athletes, it was only three months ago that the US was celebrating the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of his title and put in jail because he made a similar protest. He refused to fight in the Vietnam War, and it cost him three years in the prime of his career. Following his death, there seemed to have been near-universal celebration of his life and social conscience. Only three months later, many of those people have turned on Colin Kaepernick.

Some people have suggested that if Kaepernick thinks America is so bad, he is free to leave the country. I'm reminded of a quote by famous civil rights activist Paul Robeson: "My father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it." That was in his testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, when he was accused of conspiring with Stalin against the US. In the same way, people are accusing Kaepernick of being un-American, of being unpatriotic, when it's clear that he's more patriotic than any of his critics.

It's because he's taken a symbolic stand against the national anthem that we should briefly return to the question of what the flag symbolizes. To many people, it's a symbol of freedom and prosperity. To others, who have witnessed oppression carried out by those who march under that flag, the flag is anything but a symbol of freedom. Should slaves have been forced to sing the national anthem in a country that determined they were worth only three-fifths of a person? Or should the men lynched in Alabama have been forced to sing the national anthem just before the sheriffs deputies donned their Klan outfits? Should Emmett Till's mother have sung the national anthem after he was murdered? Should the Black Lives Matter protesters have sung the national anthem before getting pepper sprayed by white cops? I think some people simply live in a different reality than the reality people of color live in, where the flag represents oppression. It's the pin worn on the lapel of the cop pepper spraying you, or holding the dog that's attacking you, or the Republican who says black people don't deserve equal rights to education and jobs. And think of all the black men who wanted to serve in the US military but were barred by racist recruiters. Or think of the black men who did serve in the military but weren't allowed to fight. Imagine how many more Nazis could have been killed if we allowed our brave black brothers to fight in the Second World War alongside their white counterparts. They wanted to serve their country--to serve their flag--and were told they weren't good enough. Maybe the flag takes on a special meaning for men of color.

Or perhaps we could consider the flag painted on the drones that killed thousands of Afghan and Syrian civilians last year. Or the Vietnamese villagers sprayed with Agent Orange by helicopters with that flag. Or the Iraqi children whose parents were killed by American private contractors. Or the Native Americans who were systematically exterminated by American cavalrymen. Or the slaves who were forced to dig ditches or grow food for Union Troops in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. Or the Civil Rights marchers who were attacked with fire hoses and dogs by cops brandishing the flag at them. Or the black people of Alabama who heard George Wallace declare they would never see the end of segregation in America. Do you think these people see the American flag as a symbol of freedom, equality, and justice?

The flag means something different to men of color, who have been told at every turn that they are not full citizens. Colin Kaepernick 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," and that he would continue until the flag "represents what it’s supposed to represent.” Kaepernick believes in America's stated values: equality, freedom, justice. He is using his speech to stand up for those values, and he deserves our respect.