Taking a Knee for America

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Eric Wright and Colin Kapernick. Image by Michael Slate

The guy in the White House got to me last weekend. He ruined my NFL Sunday. My stomach churned with frustration, anger, sadness, and helplessness. It was like someone punched me in the gut. I wasn’t even watching my awful, but beloved San Francisco 49ers. This time,the reason for my discomfort was the president’s attack on NFL players who kneel during the national anthem.

The unpleasant sensation stayed with me all day on Sunday. The contention that kneeling is disrespectful to our nation’s veterans and military personnel has been nagging at my insides since the media frenzy produced the usual suspects of pro and anti talking heads. The ensuing rhetorical storm has me rethinking my lifelong beliefs when it comes to the Star Spangled Banner.

My dad was a World War II veteran. Although he rarely talked about his experience, I beam with pride every time I mention his service to someone. I’ll never forget my first baseball game with him, the Dodgers vs. Giants in 1971. When my dad and every other fan in windswept Candlestick Park stood in unison for the traditional pre-game song, I was a proud 7 year-old with hand over heart standing right alongside him.

My dad’s service in World War II led to my fascination and lifelong love of American history. I went on to earn a college degree in history. I appreciate why our Founding Fathers risked their lives to start a new country. I understand the Constitution and the discussions that led to its ratification. I researched how our nation rose to be a global superpower and a force of good in the world. From the deepest part of my core, I believe in the values outlined in the Bill of Rights.

I also know all too well the devastation brought on by America’s dependence on slavery, and the tragedy of Native American genocide in the name of progress and destiny. I’ve studied the Civil Rights Movement and America’s brutal reaction to each gain made during that era. It’s not a pretty picture, to be sure. The United States of America is far from the “more perfect union” envisioned by the Founders. Nevertheless, we are the greatest and freest nation the world has ever seen.

With that said, the Star Spangled Banner holds a special place in my heart and soul. I still get chills every time I hear it. With hand on heart, I listen to the familiar tune and watch the Star and Stripes freely wave in the wind. I think of my dad serving on the USS Wasp in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. I think of our heroes – George Washington to Barack Obama, Ulysses S. Grant to our commanders in the War on Terror. I’m proud to be American. I’m proud of our flag. I’m proud of our national anthem.

From the moment that Colin Kapernick set his knee upon the turf, I’ve been torn by this issue. Emotionally, I couldn’t imagine not rising for the anthem. It’s been part of my life since that cold windy night at Candlestick Park. Intellectually, I have absolute respect for the Bill of Rights and what it means to our democracy. For a year and half, I’ve managed to straddle the line between emotional allegiance to my boyhood and intellectual adherence to everything I know about what the United States represents, good and bad.

The president’s attack and the players’ reaction, however, have forced me to rethink my position. In terms of personal integrity, I know that I can no longer be on both sides. The fundamental question is whether the action taken by the players is disrespectful or a peaceful exercise of freedom of speech.

There are those who believe that this discussion is trivial in light of the natural disasters that have impacted so many around the world lately. I disagree. The debate goes to the heart of our nation’s value system and it’s worthy of discussion even during these trying times. The American spirit can multi-task. We can still hold our government accountable to natural disaster response while the anthem conversation continues.

To understand my thought process on this issue, a brief history lesson is required. The United States was born under the compromise of slavery. When the Civil War settled that issue, the law and social structures created two Americas: one for white men and one for everyone else. With the exception of a few victories like allowing women the vote, almost no progress was made until Rosa Parks sat at the front of the bus nearly 100 years after the Civil War.

Then, to quote my dad, “all hell broke loose.”

Civil rights, the Free Speech Movement on college campuses, hippies, the Equal Rights Movement, the LGBTQ Movement, and race riots all came raining down on the established social structure that made rural white America comfortable. The backlash began with Richard M. Nixon’s election as president. Rural white America wrapped themselves in our flag and proclaimed it as their flag.

The backlash reached its first boiling point at the 1992 Republican National Convention when Patrick Buchanan, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, stepped up the podium to deliver what came to be known as his “Culture War” speech. We rarely hear about it today, but his angry tone and his words are seared into my memory. He was literally calling for war.

Buchanan is a former Nixon speechwriter and an ancestor of the current Alt-Right Movement – the guys who are against everything that’s not white and Christian. His speech began by outlining the cause for ills in our society: people of color, feminists, non-Christians, LGBTQ. He finished the speech with these ominous words, “we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country” to an adoring and cheering crowd. It was clear who he meant by “we” and “our.”

Thank God he lost. The culture warriors – Neo-Nazis, KKK, white supremacists, all other assortment of racists – were forced to recede into the shadows. Then everything changed when the 45th President of the United States was elected. Their messiah had arrived and the dream of a white Christian only America became a de facto possibility.

I’m not sure if the president is a stooge for the generals prosecuting the Culture War or the Culture War Commander in Chief. I guess it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are in the midst of Pat Buchanan’s Culture War. For me, the fight isn’t about the American flag. The fight is for the American flag. We can’t stand idly by and allow the culture warriors to claim sole ownership of our flag. We must engage the battle to ensure that our flag belongs to all of us, even those who disagree with our government.

The flag is a symbol of the freedoms that makes us Americans, not of any one person or event. It’s been a long and tortuous journey of reflection since Kapernick kneeled down. I have friends who praise him and others who demonize him. That’s their right. I’ve thought long and hard on what I should do. That’s my right. And I want to keep it that way.

Of all the awful things the president had said and done since he descended the escalator more than a year ago to announce his candidacy, this one has impacted me the most. I’m an American, a third generation American. I resent having to write that sentence every time I do. But writing it reminds me not to allow anyone tell me otherwise. No person, no president has the right to question my birthright or tell me how to honor my country.

Until our government gets serious about resolving the issues raised by Colin Kapernick, I plan to honor our flag and our song by placing my hand over heart and kneeling or sitting whenever and wherever I hear the Star Spangled Banner.

I will do this in honor of my dad and all others who have risked their lives for my freedom. I will do this in honor of all those who bravely fight everyday for equal treatment guaranteed by our Bill of Rights. I will do this in honor of the country I love.

This hasn’t been an easy decision for me. My stomach feels queasy as I write, but my conscience is satisfied. I know some people will call me a fool or unpatriotic or worse. That’s okay. This is a personal decision. I’m not encouraging others to flow suit. Each one of us should do as we choose without fear of reprisal. Thank God, our flag gives us that right.

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