Note: I am not a sports fan, particularly. I don't know anything about Kaepernick as a person. I simply addressed this as a classical liberal. Also, I had mentioned the controversial third verse of the Star Spangled Banner in my original comments, but there is quite a bit of debate among historians as to what's going on in that verse, so I removed it for this blog post. For clarification, look here.
Before I begin, a word about rights. Colin Kaepernick has every right to kneel during the national anthem, just as his coach and the NFL had every right to institute a policy that requires standing and singing. They just had no such a policy. If they or his sponsors had pulled support from him, he has said publicly that he would take the consequences. If the NFL is losing money over it, it’s their decision whether to eat that cost. If the police union doesn’t want to provide extra security at the event, then the NFL can hire a private security firm. Everyone is free to choose, and everyone is free to bear the consequences of those choices. Whether their choices are prudent or best is the matter we must discuss.
As many of you know, I help to run a think-tank that celebrates the fundamental principles of the American Constitution and the generous and entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, and I am very genuine in my passion about those things. But I have never in my adult life sung the national anthem nor have I pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and I will not do so, although I do stand out of respect for the traditions of those around me. Let me explain.
The Star-Spangled Banner became popular immediately after it was written, during the War of 1812, in which America, as the home of the brave, tried to take over Canada and violate the property rights of more American Indians, but apparently, as the fourth verse claims: “Conquer we must, when our cause it is just.”
But the verse we actually sing is bad enough. It says next to nothing about the nature of our people or our land or our form of government. It simply describes a flag waving in front of bombs during a war. The entire song, as a matter of fact, is about nothing but the state – its symbols and its activities. It’s also very odd that we pledge allegiance to our flag, as that practice is in every other case that I know of limited to socialist countries. Full-blown socialism sets up the state as the ultimate arbiter and solution of human life. As a member of a Judeo-Christian tradition, such worship constitutes idolatry for me.
Now, I am not necessarily accusing my fellow believers who sing and pledge of being idolators. But if we’re not treating the state as though it is a holy, sacred thing that must not be questioned, then why the language that was thrown at Colin Kaepernick as a result of his protest? He’s called “pond scum, a horrible human being, a likely member of ISIS, a Muslim terrorist, a black thug, a communist, a socialist, a radical, a Black Panther…” He’s an “ungrateful punk” who should be “sacked”, he’s called an “entitled feral”, he and the entire NFL are being boycotted, he can “go to hell”, one person posted an afro wig on a garbage can and others wore t-shirts with a rifle scope trained on a picture of him. Apparently contempt from the NFL executives far exceeds that for players accused of domestic abuse and murder! One said that he’s a “traitor”, with “no respect for his country. Fuck that guy.” Kaepernick’s response to all this? “I don’t understand what’s un-American about fighting for liberty and justice for everybody.”
Today, the greatest example of the lack of liberty and justice for citizens, and particularly for black citizens, is the crisis of mass incarceration. 5 times as many people sit in American prisons today as did in 1970. There was a genuine surge of violent crimes and property crimes that caused the initial uptick, but confused politicians fueled an explosion of new laws and minimum sentencing requirements that were then manipulated by aggressive prosecutors, leading to the conviction of many innocent people and a frankly outrageous lengthening of the sentences of the innocent and guilty alike. There is now widespread, bipartisan support for reform and some reforms are getting underway.
Picture something imaginatively with me for a moment – if here, in the land of the free, one out of three of all of your male relatives were spending time in prison, if they were receiving insanely long sentences that took them from their families and communities, if they were far more likely to be pulled over, arrested, and roughed up than other people’s cousins and brothers and fathers and husbands, would that matter to you? Would you feel the angry response to injustice that is built into human nature? Would you say that here, in the land of the free, your family members need to just deal with it, or that they just need to be more respectful? Or would you bend over backwards to bring about change? Yes, this is a great country, and our greatest asset has always been our willingness to critique and to curb the unconstitutional activities of our own government. When Kaepernick kneels, he stands in the American tradition.
[During the discussion later between criminal justice students and others, I was able to clarify that my argument is more about unjust imprisonment and not about police. As I have said in other places, police are being placed in an impossible position, as the proliferation of invasive laws require them to interfere with citizens constantly (i.e., more arrests for marijuana than all other crimes put together). You do not need to be anti-police to protest the mass incarceration crisis.]