Sunday, September 18, 2016

The First Amendment Belongs To All Of Us, Including Colin Kaepernick

It's funny how the reputation and perception of a celebrity can change over the course of his or her time in the public eye.  Not that long ago, Colin Kaepernick was merely known as one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks in the National Football League.  If you're a Baltimore Ravens fan, his name has a more personal meaning:  he was the guy who almost helped the San Francisco 49ers defeat the Ravens a few Super Bowls ago.  Didn't happen, which made everybody in Baltimore happy and everyone in San Francisco not so much.

But now, Kaepernick has people from Baltimore to San Francisco, and lots of places in between, hating him unappeasably because of his recent decision not to stand for the playing of the National Anthem at NFL games.  His reason:  to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and to protest the treatment generally of African-Americans generally in what he referred to as "a white world."

I have to start out by stating that, as a broad general rule, I am not a big fan of using either the flag or the Anthem as a prop for a political protest.  By design, they are powerful symbols, which is the thing that attracts their use as protest props.  But, in a way, that's the problem:  they are so powerful to so many people, and invoke such a way array of thoughts and feelings, that their use as props has a tendency to swallow up the protest, and give those who are paying any attention to the protest's message a cheap and undeserved way of branding the protestor as a traitor.  I would wager that most Americans, were you to show them a photo of a flag-burning or some similar protest, could not tell you what the object of the specific protest was.  All they would see is people who are, in their minds, disgracing their country.

I don't think that Kaepernick's protest, in this regard, is any different.  And of course, ultimately, that's not the point.  And that's because of a little thing called the First Amendment, which protects Kaepernick's right to protest and his critics' right to criticize.  Unfortuately, it's hard for me to feel that, in what is threatening to become the age of Trump, the critics' right to criticize is elevated, in the minds of too many people, over Kaepernick's rights.

Maybe it would be just as well to show those critics the photos I mentioned a moment ago, and remind them that, even if they have no interest in Kaepernick's message, this country has survived a lot of disrespect toward both the flag and the Anthem, and the flag and the Anthem still have the same place in our nation that they have for decades.  Nothing has destroyed them, or their meaning, or their importance.  So maybe the critics can afford to get over it, and reflect just a little bit instead on the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, to the effect that the flag's symbolism of the right to protest it is "poignant but fundamental."  Kennedy is nobody's idea of a knee-jerk liberal, so perhaps his thoughts on the subject can provide the critics with some small degree of comfort.

On the other hand, if those critics are agents of the state, i.e., members of the Santa Clara Police Department union, they may, along with the rest of the critics, want to think specifically about what the First Amendment does forbid:  state action against free speech, among other rights.  To extend the thoughts expressed by Justice Kennedy, to take any form of state action against free speech dishonors one of our most fundamental rights--a right that the flag symbolizes, and that gives the flag much of its power in the first place.

The critics may also want to reflect on the dubious historical origins of many of our national symbols, such as the National Anthem itself.  The poem on which the Anthem is based contains four stanzas; typically, we only sing the first one.  That is probably just as well, considering the fact that the other three have some rather provocative ideas in them.  Tea Party members have used the fourth stanza's references to God as proof positive that ours was meant to be a Christian nation. And the third stanza's language, sadly, reflects author Francis Scott Key's rancid views on race.

But the thing that all of us should reflect upon, at least a little bit, is the fact that much of the progress of our nation has been instigated by a single act of defiance that was, contemporaneously, deemed to be disrespectful or unpatriotic.  There is very much of a straight line from Rosa Parks to Barack Obama, a fact that the President would be the first to acknowledge.  Kaepernick's protest may have already begun to extend that line even further.

And he may have started a conversation that we can continue without flags or songs.  Consider the case of Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles.  Nobody's idea of a protestor or a traitor, and no disrespector of the flag, yet someone who, in his own quiet but firm way, added painful but needed truth to the discussion.

To sum up, all I am saying is this:  stop labeling people, listen to their ideas, and give freedom a chance.  I cannot say this enough:  freedom is what the flag is meant to symbolize.  And freedom is not something that sits well on a shelf, adored but not used.  It's meant to be used.  Use it.  And respect its use by others.

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