The “Right” Way to Protest
While it should already be glaringly obvious, angry white conservatives see no legitimate public venue for persons of color to address systemic racism and its lasting effects on the nation. Whether they’re calling for cars to plow through and murder peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters blocking streets or telling “uppity” black actors on Broadway to entertain them rather than make a point during a play, white America has a problem with people of color protesting.
That’s why Trump’s use of NFL players peacefully protesting systemic racism and police brutality as a distraction lands so well among his base – a base who elected him in large part based on latent (and sometimes overt) racial resentment.
What’s At Stake
When Colin Kaepernick originally began sitting out the national anthem over a year ago, he plainly and explicitly described why he was doing it:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
“This is not something that I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
Since then other athletes, sports commentators and students have joined Kaepernick in sitting out the national anthem and Pledge of Allegiance as silent protest of a system that refuses to address the unequal treatment of persons of color.
To hear opponents of silently protesting players talk about it, however, an uninformed person would never know that.
To them, silently protesting during the national anthem is a direct attack on the flag, on the military, and on the soldiers who fight to protect the nation.
Never mind the fact that every solider (when entering the armed forces) takes an oath to protect the Constitution (not the symbols of the freedoms it enshrines). Symbolism and idolatry mean more to conservatives in 2017 than human beings attempting (using the freedoms those icons and idols represent) to express their oppression.
The ring leader of this disingenuous circus is none other than Donald Trump. In a recent tweet, he proclaimed, “Very important that NFL players STAND tomorrow, and always, for the playing of our National Anthem. Respect our Flag and our Country!”
That followed a contentious campaign rally in Alabama a week prior where he attacked NFL players for their peaceful protests.
“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.”
Outside of the fact that using his position of political power in the White House to influence private business decisions could be considered illegal (not that the Department of Justice would prosecute), the lens Trump and other conservatives are viewing protests through demonstrates the great lengths white Americans will go to continue ignoring the systemic racism problem that’s been festering since the Reconstruction and Jim Crow era.
In an op ed for the Miami Herald published last month, Leonard Pitts Jr. offered a grander view of where the current dispute over politics-in-sports fits:
Me, I’d thought politics was woven into all forms of human expression. I’d have sworn it’s been a part of sports since at least 1910, when a black boxer named Jack Johnson knocked out a white one named Jim Jeffries and white people across America rioted in outrage. I thought it had been part of comics since at least 1941, when Captain America decked Adolf Hitler, and of music since at least 1939, when Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit.”
I guess I was mistaken. When Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” she must have meant kumquats.
There were other criticisms, too. Some said that black men who have been “given” the “privilege” of making big money playing sports, should show proper gratitude to the country before criticizing it. Me, I was unaware there was a requirement that rich guys thank America before griping about it.
Newt Gingrich was downright offended at “arrogant young millionaires” claiming to be oppressed. Apparently, there is something about having money — unknown to us, but not to him — that keeps cops from shooting you while juries look the other way. Did the cop who murdered Tamir Rice remember to ask for a bank statement first?
Anyway, in light of their immunity from racist mistreatment, Gingrich thinks these rich black men are, well…uppity for acting as if they have a right and reason to protest. They’ve forgotten their place.
You know, it’s amazing conservatives are still willing to teach us, given what slow learners we’ve proven to be. They criticize Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. They once criticized Malcolm X and Thurgood Marshall. They even criticized Martin Luther King, who took a knee in Selma. Come to think of it, there’s never been a single moment of black activism they did not criticize.
In a succinct statement in his closing remarks, Pitts Jr. said, “Conservatives seem committed to criticizing us for as long as we are committed to vindicating our human rights.”
But the problem is much larger than NFL players taking a knee during an anthem written to glorify slavery; persons of color simply have no “acceptable” protest venues in the eyes of much of white America.
While it’s clear many conservatives value symbols over the rights they represent and convenience over having to understand oppression, it’s important to recognize the hypocrisy in those same people when they disagree with the way people of color protest.
Take Vice President Mike Pence, for example.
Pence’s pre-planned political protest over the weekend demonstrated hand over fist that Donald Trump’s (and the better part of conservative America’s) problem with NFL players protesting during the national anthem has nothing to do with the flag, with soldiers or with patriotism. He literally engaged in protest at the game over other players’ silent protest.
The biggest difference?
Whereas NFL players are only making their cause known while otherwise not causing a disturbance or costly inconvenience, Pence literally used taxpayer money (around a quarter million dollars) to go to a game, republish a photo to his Twitter account from 2014 as if it was new, and then walk out on Trump’s direction as a protest of NFL players engaging in constitutionally protested expression.
In a statement released after his staged protest, Pence said, “I left today’s Colts game because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem. At a time when so many Americans are inspiring our nation with their courage, resolve, and resilience, now, more than ever, we should rally around our Flag and everything that unites us.” He added, “While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem. I stand with President Trump, I stand with our soldiers, and I will always stand for our Flag and our National Anthem.”
But the rabbit hole goes deeper, as the Washington Post pointed out in their coverage of the stunt:
NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard reported from Indianapolis that the media pool was kept in vans ahead of the game instead of being led inside with Pence. A staffer told the pool there was a chance Pence may depart early, but did not mention how early.
Add to that the fact that Pence was scheduled to be at a fundraiser halfway across the country later that afternoon – before the game was even scheduled to be over – and the picture becomes much clearer.
In a time when black athletes are called pejoratives for peacefully protesting and white politicians are praised for engaging in nearly identical forms of protest, the question has to be asked:
Are Americans really this naïve? Or is it a simple matter of systemic racism demonstrating itself (yet again)?
That’s not even to speak of the people at a recent Patriots game who were so offended by silent, peaceful protest during the national anthem they chose to loudly boo (in protest).
Or the lack of outrage and protest from patriotic flag defenders over Astros outfielder Josh Reddick stripping down to a flag speedo as he was sprayed with alcohol in celebration of the team’s victory over the Boston Red Sox.
What makes one protest abhorrent and unpatriotic and the other ‘all American’? What makes one sports gesture toward or using the flag unacceptable while another is ignored outright?
The answer appears to be as simple as skin color.
It’s okay for white fans and white politicians to protest at NFL games or violate flag code by wearing flag-emblazoned underwear, but not darker skinned athletes or commentators.
What is the “Right” Way to Protest?
A meme began circulating recently posing a pertinent question: what is the ‘right’ way for persons of color to protest? It follows the question white conservatives are wont to ask every time a public demonstration occurs with even a fraction of darker-skinned protesters:
Why can’t they protest peacefully?
The point isn’t to highlight the violence and property damage incurred during spontaneous demonstrations sparked from events like the recent exoneration of St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley (who was charged with unlawfully killing black driver Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011). If the point was to highlight violence and property damage caused in such demonstrations, the argument would carry across the board to similar damage and violence during predominantly white riots such as the instances documented by a Twitter user in the aftermath of the 2014 Ferguson demonstrations).
But it doesn’t. Conservative media and pundits largely ignore such events when they’re carried out by predominantly white crowds.
Mind you, this is the same crowd who sees no problem with a business like S.N.A.F.U Bar in Lake Ozark, Missouri engaging in their own form of “protest” by taping down the jerseys of protesting NFL players so they spell out “Lynch Kaepernick.” The reaction is a symptom of the problem.
White conservatives don’t necessarily view black athletes as human beings with equal rights; they view them as entertainment that shouldn’t have an opinion. It’s the same plantation mentality slave owners carried as they rationalized owning humans to carry out their work. The slaves were there to work, not to have families, values or opinions.
The mentality can be summed up in one dog whistle buzzword used increasingly by conservative pundits: “ungrateful.”
Yet the belief endures, from [Louis] Armstrong’s time and before, that visible, affluent African-American entertainers are obliged to adopt a pose of ceaseless gratitude—appreciation for the waiver that spared them the low status of so many others of their kind. Stevie Wonder began a performance in Central Park last night by taking a knee, prompting Congressman Joe Walsh to tweet that Wonder was “another ungrateful black multi-millionaire.” Ungrateful is the new uppity. Trump’s supporters, by a twenty-four-point margin, agree with the idea that most Americans have not got as much as they deserve—though they overwhelmingly withhold the right to that sentiment from African-Americans. Thus, the wonder is not the unhinged behavior of this weekend but rather that it took Trump so long to exploit a target as rich in potential racial resentment as wealthy black athletes who have the temerity to believe in the First Amendment.
It’s impossible not to be struck by Trump’s selective patriotism. It drives him to curse at black football players but leaves him struggling to create false equivalence between Nazis and anti-Fascists in Charlottesville. It inspires a barely containable contempt for Muslims and immigrants but leaves him mute in the face of Russian election intervention. He cannot tolerate the dissent against literal flag-waving but screams indignation at the thought of removing monuments to the Confederacy, which attempted to revoke the authority symbolized by that same flag. He is the vector of the racial id of the class of Americans who sent death threats to Louis Armstrong, the people who necessitated the presence of a newly federalized National Guard to defend black students seeking to integrate a public school. He contains multitudes—all of them dangerously ignorant.
Which is to say, it’s not the form of protest Trump and his base take offense to so much as the protesters’ skin color.
Why else would he have singled out Jemele Hill for being suspended from ESPN rather than condemning the second white supremacist march on Charlottesville? (Which, as of the writing of this article, he has yet to even comment on let alone condemn.)
While the former spoke of fighting racism, the latter literally shouted “you will not replace us” and “we will be back” as they they marched on the city with torches.
Throughout history from MLK to Congressman John Lewis, white America has never approved of the ways persons of color have protested oppression and inequality.
White peopleThe average American doesn’t mind protest … as long as he or she can’t see it. You absolutely have the constitutional right to feel a little morose whenever your son, neighbor or fellow citizen is shot, choked, beaten or discriminated against—as long as you don’t obstruct the weekend Caucasian commute to the mall to purchase yoga pants. Why should they have to think about the disproportionate, continual murder of black people when they’re trying to get half-price cargo shorts at the Gap? That’s just un-American.
You can object to inequality as much as you’d like, as long as it isn’t at sporting events. No one wants to think about politics at sporting events. Or at political rallies. Or inaugurations. Or on social media. Or at schools. Or at actual protests.
Everywhere else is fine.
So long as conservative white America doesn’t have to be reminded that systemic racism and economic inequality exist, they’re fine with people of color protesting.*
*As long as that protest doesn’t cause them any inconvenience.
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