At last week’s Homecoming Game, members of the Black Student Union sat during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest police brutality and the recent killings of three unarmed black men during interactions with police. They were following the lead of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has refused to stand during the national anthem since the middle of August.
“I’m not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told reporters after a game, according to NFL.com.
Kaepernick and others following his lead have been criticized for their protests, which have been called unpatriotic and insulting to the military. These protests, however, are not a disgrace to our country, nor to the soldiers who protect it. They are representative of the freedom of expression we have in America as protected by the First Amendment.
“The basic notion of American freedom is individual freedom,” constitutional law professor Burton Caine said. “The First Amendment says that the government ‘shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.’ That implies that any form of protest that is recognizable ought to be done.”
Caine said there have often been confrontations throughout history about how citizens can protest symbols of national identity. Some of these have even played out in court.
The Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson declared flag desecration as a legal means of protest and the case West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette offered students protection from being forced to salute the flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Ralph Young, a history professor who wrote the book “Dissent: The History of an American Idea,” said protesting symbols of national identity is important because it forces governments to seriously think about whether or not they are upholding the values that those symbols stand for.
“When people protest against symbols of America, they’re trying to put America’s feet to the fire, so to speak, saying that America needs to live up to its values,” Young said. “That’s why they’re doing things like burning a flag, sitting through a national anthem, or refusing to do the pledge of allegiance.”
These types of protests are meant to shape our national identity for the better. Still, there are some people who get upset by such forms of protest, seeing them as attacks on national identity. From my time spent studying abroad last school year, this type of reaction seems to be uniquely American.
In both Spain and Italy, I never once heard a pledge of allegiance or national anthem, and I didn’t often see national flags. In Spain especially, the people I met were proud of being Spanish, but also deeply critical of Spain.
In the U.S., however, many people aren’t readily willing to acknowledge how our country may not be living up to the values we proclaim to be central. And challenging national symbols can seem to many like an attack on national identity itself, rather than a critique of our current situation.
It’s unfortunate that in America, some have come to define being unpatriotic as simply challenging the racist, discriminatory institutions that exist in our country.
Paul Crowe, director of Temple’s pre-law program, said patriotism at its core means respecting the laws and values laid out by the Constitution, and one of the most central of these values is the freedom to express and dissent.
“Patriotism is loyalty to the Constitution,” Crowe said. “But the Constitution says that you can be unpatriotic. So the right to speak your mind, even if it appears unpatriotic to the majority, is a quintessential American value.”
Aside from being central to the Constitution, expressions of dissent have historically been catalysts for positive change.
“Women fought for the right to vote, abolitionists protested against slavery, civil rights activists protested against the Jim Crow laws, and gay rights activists had enormous success with the legalization of gay marriage,” Young said. “There probably hasn’t been a week in American history when people haven’t been protesting.”
Kaepernick’s protest and the protests by others, like the BSU have been successful in keeping the conversation surrounding racial discrimination alive, and most importantly, they’ve done it peacefully.
To all those who consider Kaepernick and others’ protests to be unpatriotic: read the Constitution. Perhaps even exercise your own right to dissent, but stop attacking the rights of others.
These athletes clearly care enough about America to want to make it more equal for all by demanding an end to racial inequality. I would call that level of dedication deeply patriotic. I’m not sure the same can be said for those who stand up for the anthem, but who don’t stand up in the fight for equality.
Alex Voisine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.