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Why I Choose to Take a Stand, by Taking a Knee

The national controversy over those who choose to protest racial injustice in America by placing one knee on the ground during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner doesn’t seem to be going away. The NFL announced a policy last May that any players who protest the anthem while on the field will be subject to discipline from the league. Here in Carbondale, Illinois, where I reside, Southern Illinois University – or, as I like to call it, Self-Impaling University – impaled itself once again by announcing a policy forbidding student athletes, cheerleaders and spirit members from engaging in “displays of activism” while in uniform. Thankfully, after a public outcry, the university quickly reversed itself.

Last year, when three black cheerleaders at SIU bravely took a knee before an SIU football game, they were subjected to a sickening barrage of racist vitriol, including death threats, sexual assault threats, and being called the N-word.

What galls me especially is when self-appointed guardians of “patriotism” encourage such hatred by proclaiming that taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem is disrespecting the nation and disrespecting American veterans. Here’s a typical example: “Standing for the national anthem is to show respect for our nation, and to honor those who have fought for our country. Freedom isn’t free; to not stand up for those who have served in the military to allow every American to have the
opportunities of this great nation, is utterly disrespectful.”

Sad to say, our local so-called “representative” in Congress, Mike Bost (12th Congressional District, Illinois) weighed in with similar sentiments by conducting an unscientific “poll” in his taxpayer-supported e-newsletter, before spouting off that he “agrees” with those who “believe that it is disrespectful to the nation and the flag to take a knee – rather than stand – during the playing of the National Anthem.”

Added Bost: “I believe Americans owe a debt of gratitude to our nation’s bravest individuals – those who have served and risked their lives in defense of freedom and liberty. As a Marine and the father of a Marine, I believe we must remember the sacrifices of our veterans who have bravely served our nation, as well as show respect to servicemembers currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.”

There are several things wrong with this claim that protesting during the playing of the national anthem is disrespectful to the nation or to its veterans.

First of all, the idea of taking a knee as a form of protest against unjust police killings of people of color in the U.S.came from U.S. Army veteran Nate Boyer, who convinced Colin Kaepernick to express his concerns over that injustice in that manner, because it was respectful. (The linked article in Snopes is well worth reading, demonstrating that Kaepernick is an intelligent man who is not seeking to disrespect anyone, but is simply trying to motivate Americans to get serious about addressing an extremely serious problem.)

Second, it is this claim, not the protests themselves, that disrespects and frankly insults veterans, because the people making it presume that they are somehow entitled to speak for all veterans, and that all veterans hold the same beliefs. In addition to Mr. Boyer, there are plenty of veterans who support the national-anthem protests, most notably, the thoughtful veterans of Veterans for Peace.

Third, this claim equates love of one’s country with love of the military, as if the national anthem is meant to honor the military, not the nation – or that the two are inseparable. Granted, this nation is probably the most militarized in history, long steeped in war, and the lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner certainly reflect this. Nonetheless, it is the national anthem, not the Pentagon’s anthem, and the ritual of playing it is intended to show respect for the country, not the military and U.S. wars. This is one more instance of self-appointed dogmatic “patriots” glorifying all things military and simply presuming that to be patriotic means to support every act of war by the U.S. — and that every such act must be just, because the U.S. is committing it.

Fourth, how is it possibly dishonoring the country or the military to make a symbolic statement to the effect that, “I would like to make my country a better place to live, by calling for an end to the senseless unjustified killing of black people by police?” Yes, I understand the purpose of the ritual – we are supposed to come together as a people, despite our differences, and show our national unity. But that is a fiction. We are not“together as a people” when we allow some of our people to be gunned down by agents of the government, in circumstances where it was not absolutely necessary to protect someone else from being harmed. We are not“together as a people” when, in most cases, the perpetrators of police murder are allowed to escape serious consequences for their actions.

The United States has a serious problem with police violence, and if you’re not outraged by it, you haven’t been paying attention. The act of taking a knee is intended to focus people’s attention on that problem until it has been addressed. Only a committed racist or someone completely lacking in empathy could read the accounts of what happened to Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, or John Crawford III, and countless others, and not be angered. The problem of police violence is at once permeated by racism and also transcends it, as (typically poor) white Americans are also victimized by it (something I have personal knowledge of as a civil rights lawyer in Southern Illinois), yet black Americans are victimizedroughly three times as frequently, and Native Americans are evidently being shot and killed at an even higher rate. This is not only a terrible injustice in and of itself; it is also a psychological assault, inflicting mental and emotional trauma upon people of color. Police killings in the U.S. provide another instance of “American exceptionalism,” but not in a good way: Our police kill people at a far higher rate than in other industrialized countries, killing more in a matter of days than the police of other nations kill in years.

Of course, police violence directed especially against people of color is but one component of a fundamentally unjust, class-based and racist criminal justice system badly in need of overhaul. There are solutions, from sensible proposals to create elected Civilian Police Accountability Councilswith real authority to oversee police operations, to an even more thorough transition to Civilian-Led Policing. However, such policy solutions will not be enacted unless and until there is a public groundswell demanding their adoption. Taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem is one small but important symbolic step toward building the kind of solidarity needed to create that groundswell. We must build the kind of movement that cannot be ignored.

Finally, there is at least one more flaw in the claim that taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem disrespects those who “risked their lives in defense of freedom and liberty”:  The latter claim is simply not true.

Let’s be very clear here. No doubt, many of those who chose to serve in our armed forces did so because they honestly believed that they were signing up to protect our nation and its freedoms, and I respect those who did so with that sincere belief. But the fact is that those who “risked their lives” – in Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Lebanon, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and all the other nations illegally attacked by the United States since World War II, did not do so “in defense of freedom and liberty,” because not a single one of those nations ever threatened our freedom and liberty, such as it is. Not a single one of those countries ever once threatened to attack, let alone actually attacked, the United States.

Some may claim that the invasion of Afghanistan was a justifiable act of “defense” because of the 9/11 attacks. But that claim fails on several grounds. Even if one accepts the official story that Osama Bin Laden was responsible for the attack and was being harbored in Afghanistan, that does not justify invading an entire country, overthrowing its government, and occupying it for 17 years – in order to arrest the perpetrator and his supporters. Such claims ignore the fact that the Taliban government offered to turn over Bin Laden if the U.S. had simply produced evidence that he was responsible for 9/11, but the Bush administration refused the offer, deliberately choosing invasion over a peaceful solution. Such claims also ignore the fact that the invasion of Afghanistan was planned well before 9/11, and was motivated by the Taliban’s failure to cooperate with the U.S. ruling class’s desire to build a pipeline to transport oil from Central Asia and the Caspian region, across western Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean.

Like all the other wars listed above, those who “risked their lives” were not fighting to defend freedom and liberty. They were used to fight wars of conquest, to assert U.S. control of other nation’s resources, markets, sources of cheap labor, and strategic territories that would facilitate access to the wealth of other nations. Proof of this in each and every instance is beyond the scope of the present article, but I will return to that subject in the future. For now, it will suffice to point out that none of the nations attacked by the United States since World War II ever once threatened to attack the U.S. or threatened its “freedom and liberty.” The claim is simply a lie, and it is not made any more true by its frequent repetition. That is not the fault of the people who fought in those wars; they were used a pawns by a ruling class and its political agents, both Democrat and Republican, who repeatedly sent them into wars fought for the sake of profit and wealth accumulation, not defense of freedom and liberty. But it is still a lie, and the lie must be answered and exposed for what it is.

Yes, our freedoms are under attack, but they are under attack from the same national security state and powerful executive branch that misuses our military by sending it overseas to fight for oil, resources and profits for the wealthy owners of U.S. corporations and banks, a national security state that spies on us, assassinates and tortures people, persecutes whistleblowers,infiltrates the media, manufactures consent for war and repeatedlylies to the American people. They are under attack from a Congress that rammed through the USA Patriot Act within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, and that, just last January, supported by leading Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff, passed a bill to give the Trump administration greater authority to spy on Americans, immigrants, journalists, dissidents, and everyone else.

To me, the U.S.’s shameful record of conducting aggressive wars of conquest, having nothing to do with defense of freedom and everything to do with the accumulation of wealth and profit, is all the more reason to take a knee every time the national anthem is played. It is every bit as shameful as our failure to address the problem of racist police violence. I will not express my “pride” in being a member of a nation that acts as an international outlaw.

In all candor, I am not a big fan of “patriotic” displays in the first place. In my view, national chauvinism — this raw sentiment that you are supposed to cheer for your country, no matter how criminally or horribly its government’s actions may be — is a problem to be resisted, not embraced. As George Bernard Shaw famously wrote: “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.”

The social convention of standing for the national anthem is not the action of a people celebrating freedom and liberty. To the contrary, it smacks of regimentation and group-think, using peer pressure to get everyone to agree that your particular nation-state is the best – not because it actually is, but because you are told to believe it and are threatened with ostracism, verbal abuse or worse if you don’t go along with the crowd. I align myself with Albert Einstein and Eugene V. Debs when it comes to the question of patriotism. As Debs well put it: “In every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the People.”

For these reasons, although I have not attended many sporting events in recent years, I have long been a dissenter when it comes for standing for the national anthem. But now I have plenty of good reasons to kneel for it.

I will kneel to show solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and with all of my black, brown and Native American brothers and sisters who are suffering from the impacts of police violence.

I will kneel because I believe, as a white member of the working class, that it is essential that we show support for our brothers and sisters of all colors, to overcome the divisions of color and perceived “race” (“race” itself being a lie invented by early colonial capitalism), and unite as workers against our real nemesis — a class-ruled, war-perpetuating economic system that is driving more and more of us into poverty and destroying the environment on which all living things depend.

I will kneel as a protest against our nation’s perpetual illegal wars, which have murdered millions of innocent men and women abroad, while robbing our communities of the resources needed to provide quality employment, education and health care for all, modernize our infrastructure and otherwise meet the needs of working people here at home.

I love the people of this country (well, most of them anyway), but if I am to love the “United States” as a nation, it must be loveable; if I am to honor the nation, it must act honorably. It hasn’t been doing that. Until it does; until we as a people rise up and address the evils it perpetrates, I am not going to be standing and singing its praises.

Rich Whitney is an attorney, disk jockey, environmental and peace activist, co-chair of the Illinois Green Party and Green Party candidate for County Board in Jackson County, Illinois. He is active with the Green Party Peace Action Committee, United National Antiwar Coalition and Chicago Committee Against War and Racism, among other organizations.  

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