American Protestor

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD

Kneeling during the national anthem is a common form of protest right now — in the NFL and other settings. The contentious topic emerged in media and politics when Colin Kaepernick, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, kneeled during the national anthem as an act of peaceful demonstration for Black Lives Matter in August 2016.

People have begun to debate whether or not the “kneeling” movement is anti-American, disrespectful and corrosive. Recently, in reference to “the kneel,” President Trump referred to the NFL protesters as “sons of bitches.” Others argue in Kaepernick’s favor. Somewhere along the way, in debating the efficacy of “the kneel,” we forgot the real, important reasons Kaepernick brought it to the table in the first place.

Discourse on the topic is decidedly fraught, and has been sensationalized in mainstream media outlets. But the Middlebury bubble is not immune to such conversations: “kneeling” during Nescac games has happened, too. Players kneeled in salute to Kaepernick’s cause during an Amherst football game last fall, as well as during a Wesleyan basketball game back in February. With the fall sports season at Middlebury well underway, how will we grapple with such questions? Will we kneel? Will we respect those who do, and those who do not?

At Middlebury, and perhaps at many similar liberal arts institutions, American institutions are openly challenged. In the classroom, we spend much of our time learning about our nation’s troubled past and present, fraught with injustices and inequalities. Sometimes, we learn things about our country we didn’t realize and aren’t proud of. It can lead some students to wonder if social justice movements can be conducted patriotically.

The rhetoric and imagery surrounding the national anthem protests seems to create the illusion of a social justice movement at odds with patriotism. Protesters accuse our country of hypocrisy. America’s founding documents espouse “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and rhetoric of opportunity while black bodies are gunned down by the police. Black NFL players and those in solidarity kneel to speak out against repeated, systemic violence. Not everyone feels safe in America; not everyone feels fully protected by state institutions.

We all want a fairer America, an America that lives up to its rhetoric. By “kneeling,” some players no doubt feel they are acknowledging the hypocrisies of America — and the language of its anthem, the proverbial land of the incompletely free. They are calling on the country they love to do better.

What does this mean for our community at Middlebury? Protest is patriotism in its purest form; holding America to the high standards of its lofty ideals and sacrificing to improve it. We cannot condone flippant critiques of American systems lightly. But we can applaud and elevate critiques of American systems that are serious, brave and crucial.

Protest is pro-American and fundamentally American, since the Boston Tea Party and the country’s founding. Challenging one’s government, especially in oppressive circumstances, has always been a core American value, as evidenced by the Declaration of Independence itself: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

We can recognize that to protest American institutions — whether that means standing up to a militarized police force or kneeling, on one of the most visible stages in sports and in television, in solidarity — is not to be “anti-American.” Indeed, the prerogative to fight for a more equitable union — challenging those with power in the process — is written into the very backbone of our nation.

We are taught at Middlebury to think critically about the institutions around us. But we shouldn’t stop at the armchair critique; we should take the lessons of protesters like Colin Kaepernick seriously, and fight for an America that does live up to the rhetoric upon which it was founded. Whether you choose to kneel or stand for the national anthem, if you play in or attend any of the Nescac events ahead, we encourage you to take the issue seriously.

Give it the time and attention it deserves. Use the opportunity to break the Middlebury bubble and talk about what it means to be an American today — in the era of Trump — outside of the narrow context of our idyllic Vermont landscape. Our nation is in a moment of flux, and Middlebury — despite the privileged bubble it inhabits — is not immune to that.

Remember, you can be proud of an imperfect nation. And, sometimes, the best way to show love for that nation is to challenge its imperfections, boldly and unapologetically.

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American Protestor