Mild Protest

I know people who feel strongly that professional football players should stand during the national anthem. They feel that the anthem is a symbol of American unity, a tribute to our service men and women, and that it is that not patriotic to sit or kneel or hold up a fist during the Star Spangled Banner. I respect people who feel this way, but I respectfully disagree with them. Here’s why.

If you have been listening to the Jefferson Hour for any length of time, you know that Jefferson was a revolutionary in the full sense of the term, not just a “revolutionary” in the milder Continental Congress sense. In his carefully crafted letters, he told Abigail Adams and James Madison that he liked a little rebellion now and then.

In a letter to William Smith, written in Paris on November 13, 1787, Jefferson wrote, “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without a rebellion.” He said, “What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.”

The NFL players in question are not shooting the referees for reaching for their penalty flags. They are not tearing down the goalposts at halftime. They are not beating up random fans in the stands. They are not blowing up the football on the 45-yard line. They are not smashing people’s iPhones, or throwing flagons of beer on coaches and owners. They are not boycotting the games or walking off the field with ten seconds left in the fourth quarter to show their discontentment with America. They are not taping over the mouth of the celebrity or active military officer who sings the national anthem. They are not ripping through the giant American flag that is stretched across the field or throwing bleach or blood on it.

They are quietly kneeling, without shouting slogans or obscenities. This does not sound very incendiary or very radical. Jefferson defended the French Revolution, including the Reign of Terror, as a necessary bloodletting to restore the equilibrium and justice to life in France. I doubt that he would find the NFL protest outrageous. Nor did he ever express any sacred reverence for songs, flags, salutes, anthems, medals, or the rest of the flummery of artificial patriotism. To be patriotic is to love this country. To love this country is to want it to live up to its ideals. To want it to live up to its ideals is to be willing to criticize it when it fails to do so. If you think it never fails to do so, you have not paid the slightest attention to the wild ride of American history. If you think we never fail to live up to the promise of America you are not black, Hispanic, poor, or Native American, and you have not bothered to project your imagination beyond your own comfort zone.

When I watch the video of the athletes kneeling in silence, I see purpose, dignity, anguish, and conviction. What I don’t see is people brandishing semi-automatic weapons, people wearing camouflage fatigues, people wielding openly hateful, often racist signs denouncing the president of the United States, people calling for Second Amendment solutions to America’s ills. No, that was what one saw at a Tea Party rally during the Obama years, and it was always defended as a venerable American tradition drawn from the playbook of the Minutemen and the Boston Tea Party.

We need to take a deep breath. We need to have a serious and careful national conversation about the legacy of slavery and racism. We need to read and investigate. We need to take this protest seriously.

The NFL’s athletes have gotten our attention. All of America is now talking about the protests. That includes people who would rather talk about anything else. In their quiet, non-violent and dignified way, the athletes have forced all of us to talk about what kinds of protests are legitimate in a sprawling continental democracy, whether corporation owners have a right to censor the free expression of their employees, whether politicians can legitimately try to coerce corporation owners to censor their employees.

But we are also talking about the real issue—police brutality, race profiling, whether the seemingly routine shooting of black suspects is justified, whether there is structural and institutional racism at the center of American life, or to put it by way of the slogan, whether black lives matter in American life as much as white lives matter. I wish we were talking about this issue more and the sanctity of the national anthem less, but that may still come.

Protest is a central virtue in the American experiment. Its roots are in the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773, in Daniel Shays’ rebellion of 1786, the event that triggered the Constitutional Convention of 1787; or the dozens of slave rebellions that were a prelude to John Brown’s terrorist raid on the US arsenal at Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859.

Think of the silent protest of the Underground Railroad in which an estimated 100,000 black slaves were shepherded out of the plantation south to free northern states or to Canada in response to the inhuman violation of human right that was slavery.

Think of the labor movement of the post-Civil War era, or the protests of women demanding that they be given the vote in the United States and then equal access to employment, and then control of their reproductive destiny.

Think of Rosa Parks silently refusing to move to the back of the bus—do you remember the outrage expressed then by white people who felt that this was not the time or place to raise the issue of equal access to taxpayer supported public transport? Think of the African Americans who sat in white only lunch counters, or those who marched peacefully along the roads of Alabama—subjected to water hoses and attack dogs for the crime of marching nonviolently in silence.

Think of the vast national protest against the Vietnam war, the worldwide anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 80s.

In each of those watersheds—some of them among the greatest moments in American history—the reactionaries have said not now, not here, not about this, not patriotic, not legitimate, not American.

Thomas Jefferson understood this better than all the rest of us combined, and he understood it back at the very beginning of our national experiment. He understood that petitions and letters to the editor do not redress the fundamental wrongs of a civilization. He understood that protest only works if you are able to get the attention of the community, and to do so you had to be willing to violate the norms of civil complacency. “I like a little rebellion now and then,” said Jefferson.

The athletes who are kneeling at NFL games are not attempting to tear down American civilization. They are not moving us toward anarchy and social collapse. (The person who is flirting with that agenda now occupies the desk in the Oval Office of the White House). No, they are quietly asking the rest of us to attend to a central problem of American life—that to be born black in America means that your life is going to be more vulnerable, more marginal, more impoverished, and more dangerous, that if you are born black you are born into second class citizen status and the great institutions of the country, including the police and the judicial system, appear to line up against you more often than not.

This is a question that all people who prize equality should want to address earnestly, not reluctantly.


"Boston Tea Party, State House Mural, Boston, Mass." from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.