Politicizing the Flag Cuts Both Ways

When former San Francisco Quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling for the national anthem during the 2016-17 NFL season, there was no doubt then as there is no doubt now that he did so to make a political statement. I don’t speak for Mr. Kaepernick, but, in my own words, the statement was an expression of anger and frustration over the lack of justice and accountability in the tragic deaths of black men (like Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner) and women (like Sandra Bland) due to unduly harsh treatment by police. Kaepernick viewed the act of participating in the ceremony of the national anthem as a choice, a political one at that, and exercised his constitutional right to free expression to opt out, creating a national controversy in the process.

Now, with Kaepernick unable to land a job in the NFL due not to his merit as a football player but to his allegedly “divisive” protest (bearing an interesting parallel to Ray Rice, who was essentially blacklisted from the NFL for knocking out his then-fiancee on camera), kneeling for the anthem has become bigger news than it even was last year. We can thank President Trump for that, who recently referred to NFL protestors (and, more importantly, American citizens) as “sons of bitches” who should be “fired” from the NFL for exercising their First Amendment right to free expression. (By the way, aren’t presidents required to swear to uphold the Constitution?).

Further, in my weekly roundup post, one of the articles I posted dealt with some high schools around the country essentially taking President Trump’s “those son of a bitches should be fired” “directive” to heart. One public school in Louisiana has threatened its student athletes by saying that school administrators and coaches are free to discipline any student athlete who kneels for the anthem. (Never mind that public schools are constitutionally forbidden to compel students to stand for the national anthem — see West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette). In so doing, these schools politicize standing for the flag as a symbol of, at best, blind loyalty to the status quo and, at worst, a symbol of coerced acquiescence to an establishment still very much uncomfortable with the thought of bodies of color disrupting a system (and a presidential administration) none-too-concerned with empirically supported claims of disparate access to justice. Call me a cynic, but I wonder whether this flag idolatry would be as rabid if professional athletes had been kneeling for the anthem to protest, say, the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision or the policies of the Obama Administration. I don’t think it’s controversial to assume, in a scenario where a conservative professional athlete knelt for the anthem to protest marriage equality on religious grounds, that the Sean Hannitys and the Tomi Lahrens of the world would be singing that athlete’s praises as heroically subverting the system through free expression, rather than masking their pseudo-moral outrage with pro-military sentiments, as they’re doing now.

In mandating (for public schools, unconstitutionally so) standing for the national anthem, school districts are forcing kids to participate in this politics. Kids are raised to stand for the national anthem as a sign of, I assume, national unity and mutual respect for the ideals behind the flag. I was a Texas public school student not too long ago (I guess I technically still am), and, to be frank, I never really thought about why I stood for the anthem every morning — I just did it. I would guess that most kids don’t really think about the act of standing for the flag as anything more than just something we as Americans do before school starts, before professional sporting events, etc. — as something innocent and devoid of politics unless one chooses to use the anthem to make a political statement. Now, in school districts like the one in Louisiana threatening punishment over kneeling for the anthem, school districts are removing that innocence from the flag and forcing kids to choose which side of the flag debate they stand (or kneel) on. Either way, if you’re a kid in that Louisiana school district, the national anthem is now a political event, and your participation or absence in that pageantry may yet say something about who you are, what you stand for, whose side you’re on. If more and more schools come out with policies threatening their students with disciplinary action if they choose to kneel for the anthem, then it’s safe to say that the debate over what the American flag means politically has just begun.

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