Trump, the Anthem, Free Speech & the Fight Against Racial Inequality

Trump, the Anthem, Free Speech & the Fight Against Racial Inequality

When Colin Kaepernick first began kneeling during the national anthem, no one noticed and for the most part, no one cared. It wasn’t until right-wing pundits began screaming about how offended and disrespected people should feel over his peaceful protest that people began forming opinions based more on ‘hot take’ outrage than actual law, reason or ethics.

Colin KaepernickThat white-hot rage reached a fever pitch as conservatives repeatedly lobbed death threats at the reviled football quarterback last year – and then patted themselves on the back for being good patriots.

With the return of football season that controversy is back, and it now involves the White House (of course).

At his Friday night Alabama rally – as he launched attacks on two other well known persons of color for daring to engage in constitutionally protected free speech (Jemele Hill and Stephen Curry) Donald Trump targeted football players kneeling during the national anthem.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” Trump yelled on stage. He added, “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”

The “son of a bitch” comments were directly mostly at Kaepernick (as he led the effort before other players began joining his protest). When she hard what Trump said about her son, Colin Kaepernick’s  mother Teresa Kaepernick said, “Guess that makes me a proud bitch!”

The current conversation about the national anthem is larger than Trump letting his racism show; rather, it demonstrates how little many Americans know about civics and civil rights – particularly, the right to free expression and peaceful protest free from government censorship or intervention.

Free Speech & Expression Versus Racism

The only people who have the absolute right to take issue with any football player kneeling during the anthem are NFL team owners. Fans, politicians, and especially government officials are welcome to their opinion, but have no direct say in policing the constitutionally protected speech and expression of privately employed sports players (and commentators).

But the uproar over mostly non-white football players engaging in peaceful protest by kneeling during the national anthem – an action condoned by those who actually have the power to hire or fire them – speaks to a much larger and more sinister problem.

When we wrote about this last year, we made a salient point that bears repeating:

Though most of those draping themselves in the flag and shaming others for engaging in one of the most patriotic things a citizen can do – engage in peaceful political protest expression – claim their protests aren’t laced with racism, most if not all had nothing to say (other than insults and vulgarity) when we pressed about their protests during more complex and illegal actions by NFL players like domestic violence, dog torture and worse (including the most recent incident where fullback Bruce Miller assaulted a 70-year-old man and his son at a local hotel for which no one seems to care).

While issues like domestic violence, animal abuse, and long-term health issues associated with the sport itself haven’t had enough star power to rally conservatives around a cause, a handful of players peacefully protesting has managed to sound alarms across red America.

CNN touched on this in coverage of the ongoing phenomenon reporting last month:

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 about the American victory at the Battle of Fort McHenry. We only sing the first verse, but Key penned three more. This is the third verse:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The mere mention of “slave” is not entirely remarkable; slavery was alive and well in the United States in 1814. Key himself owned slaves, was an anti-abolitionist and once called his African brethren “a distinct and inferior race of people.”

Some interpretations of these lyrics contend Key was, in fact, taking pleasure in the deaths of freed black slaves who had fought with the British against the United States.

In order to bolster their numbers, British forces offered slaves freedom in British territories in return for joining their cause. These black recruits formed the Colonial Marines and were looked down upon by people like Key, who saw their actions as treasonous.

As an anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has never been a unanimous fit. Since it was officially designated as the national anthem in 1931, Americans have debated the suitability of its militaristic lyrics and difficult tune. (Some have offered up “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” as alternatives.)

We touched on this briefly last year:

GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump entered the fray this week issuing a similar statement about Kaepernick’s protected expression. During an interview with Dori Monson on KIRO Radio on Monday Trump argued Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him,”” He added, “let him try.”

This follows statements where Trump literally said other countries are better than the United States including China, Dubai and Qatar.

The “if you don’t subscribe to my political opinion you should leave the country” mantra is neither new nor original though. It’s permeated conservative thoughts and arguments for several years as its the best they can muster when presented with the fact that the Constitution and the First Amendment protect speech regardless of its agreeable or disagreeable content.

It doesn’t matter to them that the National Anthem has a history steeped in racism, slavery and oppression. Conservatives prefer to gloss over historical fact in lieu of draping themselves in flags in order to self-righteously condemn others.

It doesn’t matter to them that we celebrate another sports legend – Jackie Robinson – for taking a similar stand against the anthem and its racist roots.

It doesn’t matter to them that while soldiers died overseas defending American freedom, those soldiers didn’t die defending one person’s or one party’s idea of what freedom should look like. Once speech and expressions come with asterisks requiring jingoistic nationalism and forced servitude, freedom is no longer the operative word.

Moreover, using military sacrifice to justify infringing on someone’s Constitutional freedoms attacks the very foundations of the Bill of Rights. It trivializes the lives lost domestically that persons like Kaepernick are speaking out for through actions and expression.

It makes total sense why non-white football players seeking to engage in peaceful protest against racial injustice would target the national anthem not only because of the song’s history, but the history of athletes engaging in similarly styled protest. What’s new is the fairly large, frighteningly militaristic and nationalistic backlash against the protest in an era where white people are wont to argue that “those people” need to find more peaceful methods of protest when speaking about racial injustice.

Respect Versus Nationalism & Compelled Speech

One of the more amusing ironies of the entire national anthem and ‘respect the flag’ discussion is the fact that most people have no clue what flag code actually says when it comes to respecting or disrespecting the U.S. flag.

To wit, here’s what U.S. Flag Code (Chapter 10) actually has to say:

§176. Respect for flag
No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America; the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing. Regimental colors, State flags, and organization or institutional flags are to be dipped as a mark of honor.(a) The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.
(b) The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.
(c) The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker’s desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.
(e) The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.
(f) The flag should never be used as a covering for a ceiling.
(g) The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.
(h) The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
(i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.
(j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.
(k) The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.

[Emphasis Mine]

How many times have the same people decrying people of color for kneeling during the national anthem disrespected the flag themselves? In particular, the emboldened sections above represent the most frequently and most overlooked forms of disrespect in a country where the conversation is currently centered on disrespect and patriotism.

One Twitter user actually put together a nice explainer thread to demonstrate just how hypocritical the entire “respect” conversation actually is.

The same flag code that points out all of the actual violations people commit without a second thought is also the same code that should put to rest the notion that kneeling as a form of protest is somehow wrong or unpatriotic:

§171. Conduct during playing
During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and retain this position until the last note. When the flag is not displayed, those present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed there.

Should is the operative word, not must or some other definitive, declaratory word.

Whereas people are offended and upset at something Flag Code itself deems as optional, those same offended people willfully ignore actual, blatant flag disrespect violations because those violations don’t have a connection to the same race-based emotional narrative kneeling in protest of racial injustice engenders.

Trump’s Attack Backfired

When he called a private citizen engaging in constitutionally protected protest expression a “son of a bitch” that should be fired from his job for engaging in free speech, Donald Trump used harsher words for a black man fighting racial injustice than he did when condemning the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville by white supremacists and Nazis.

People took note of his vulgar, directed tone when they refused to allow his potentially illegal harassment of private citizens using their legal right to protest.

James Brown, host of The NFL Today, put it succinctly responding to a question about the overall response to Trump’s attack:

Pretty much what you just articulated, John, that from the commissioner, owners,​ and players, they have uniformly and universally disavowed those comments. Leadership, John, is​ about being a unifier, if you will. And engaging in vulgar, profane references​ to a group of young professionals who have been peacefully exhibiting their First Amendment rights is not the way to engage in civil discourse for the purpose of resolving longstanding, well-documented problems in their communities. And all they’re aiming to do​ is to​ make sure that the first words of the U.S. Constitution,​ “We the people,”​ is inclusive and they have those same rights and freedoms, John.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell didn’t mince words in an official statement responding to Trump’s remarks:

“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture. Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”

NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith added, “[The union] will never back down when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of our players as citizens as well as their safety as men who compete in a game that exposes them to great risks.”

Following Trump’s remarks, players across the NFL began protesting together.

It seems that Trump’s attack on a handful of non-white athletes protesting racial injustice just forced the issue into further into the mainstream, and with that force brought white allies out of the woodwork to support their teammates.

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Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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