Just My Opinion – A Smarter Protest

Americans did not devise the concept of protesting against perceived injustices, but we have been using this method of standing up for ourselves and communicating our grievances for several hundred years, often with great effectiveness.  Violent protest aside, the right of peaceful protest is written into the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and fully engrained into our social consciousness.

That being said, peaceful and occasionally subtle protest to bring attention to an issue can be completely obscured, misconstrued or create a powerful backlash if the wrong tools of communication are used.  The American Flag, the National Anthem and even the fictional Uncle Sam are iconic symbols of the American way of life or at least what our country, overall, strives to be.  They encompass our values, our morals and our codes of conduct that gives our society a sense of direction to be better people and a better country. 

Obviously, we are far from perfect and I believe, as a country, we have recently slipped back to some degree in regards to equal rights.  But when someone uses the Flag or the Anthem to convey their objection to one issue, the message that gets received is that they object to all that is American, including all the good.  The objections, no matter how relevant, are treated as an attack on our country.  Most Americans are very passionate about their country and do not have the patience nor the inclination to sort through a blanket condemnation to find the real message.   Desecrating the American Flag or kneeling during the National Anthem immediately aligns them with leaders and citizens of adversarial countries who burn our Flag, hang our leaders or Uncle Sam in effigy and shout “Death to America”.

Let me cite two examples of what mindset develops when one of these American icons is involved in a protest.  In the final preseason game of the 2016 NFL season, Colin Kaepernick, an African-American member of the San Francisco 49ers, knelt down during the playing of the National Anthem to protest police brutality against the Black community.  He continued to take a knee before each game for the rest of the season. 

Was Kaepernick’s grievance valid?  Evidence not only suggested it was, it screamed it.  What was the overall response by the American public?  Outrage.  He was accused of hating his country, not appreciating his privileged social and economic status provided by the opportunities he was given in this country and disrespecting the US military who had long fought to ensure his Constitutional right to protest.

Unfortunately, despite the legitimacy of Kaepernick’s message, it was virtually silenced by the blowback.  The spotlight was placed almost directly on his kneeled stance and not his stance on the issue.  He did receive some support but many did not hear of did not want to hear what he was trying to say.  Ultimately, the general public chose to rally around the flag rather than find a solution for the problem.

On April 25, 1976, during a game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field between the Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers, two people ran onto the outfield grass in the fourth inning and attempted to burn the American Flag as a protest.  Cub centerfielder Rick Monday swooped in and grabbed the Flag before they could light the match and carried it to the Dodger dugout, all to a thunderous applause and standing ovation.

In those few moments, Monday became a national hero and remains one still today.  He did not save a life or right an egregious wrong or make the world a better place to live and yet, that single “patriotic” act became his legacy, far beyond anything else he did in his 19-year MLB career.  Whatever those two individuals were protesting that day had no impact on the country and they, along with their names and their cause, were quickly lost to obscurity.

America needs activists, like Colin Kaepernick still is to this day, to highlight and speak out against social injustice.  However, you don’t tear down your house when you see rats running around.  Your message is destroyed in the process.   You find another way to rid your home of rats and keep the house standing.  In the late 1960’s, young men burned their draft cards to protest the war in Vietnam.  We got the message.  In that same decade, a few women burned their bras in protests demanding equal rights.  Again, we understood.  Whether we agreed or not, their issues were clear and specific.

There is no denying that Kaepernick’s actions destroyed his football career.  He has been blackballed by the NFL and its owners despite having very credible statistics as an NFL starting quarterback.  I firmly believe the owners do not want to risk damaging their brand by signing the controversial player.   

It makes me wonder if Kaepernick and his cause would have been better served if he had chosen a less controversial way to express his message.  If he had kept playing football and used his financial resources to promote better awareness and push for substantive change, the results may have been different.  His cause was just, his approach, misguided. 

Many individuals in American history have followed the same path as Kaepernick and have rarely been successful.   Societal change does not come easy but will not come at all if every aspect of it is condemned by those seeking change.  Often times, it is all in the delivery.

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