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Both Sides Of Anthem Protests Need To Abandon Empty Gestures And Do Something Real

(Photo Credit: The Daily Pennsylvanian)

The firestorm made its way to Franklin Field.

Few football fans may noticed it as the game was about to start, including myself.  I wasn't focused on the cheerleading team during the national anthem, nor was anyone else that I confer with - I was a bit more preoccupied whether Lehigh was going to open the season 0-3.

But sometime on Monday, The Daily Pennsylvanian published a short piece detailing the planned protest event, done by Alexus Bazen and Deena Char.

It is the same act that 49ers backup QB Colin Kaepernick and many, many other NFL players have performed during the national anthem during the preseason and first weeks of the season - kneeling or sitting during the National Anthem, and raising a fist.  It's an act meant to inflame and to get them noticed, and it did.

Why, though?

The "why" can and should be asked on both sides of the protest, those that find solidarity with it and those that are angered by it.

Let's talk about it.

Whenever I am at a Lehigh football game, basketball game or any other sporting event, and the anthem plays, I always try to show respect by taking off my cap, stopping what I'm doing, and staring at the flag.

I don't tweet during the anthem.  I don't check the feed during the anthem.  It's only two and a half minutes; there's plenty of time to do everything I need about the game before and after.

But athletes, support staff and others are using that anthem time to protest.

In ways, it seems to me so innocuous - and also, only a gesture.

"I'm going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed," Kaepernick said back in August.   "To me, this is something that has to change. When there's significant change and I feel that flag represents what it's supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it's supposed to, I'll stand."

When I read his justification of his "protest", I was immediately irritated.

So you'll stop your protest only when you say everything is OK?  This is literally the definition of a tantrum - and, even less helpfully, Kaepernick didn't define what "significant change" was.  Does it mean treating Native Americans better?  Raising the minimum wage?  Combating tight monetary policy at the Fed?  Kaep didn't say.  "When I say it's OK," seemed to be his selfish answer.

Maybe that's not fair.  Maybe I should have known that he was talking about African-American communities, and violence towards that group.  But it wasn't obvious - made even less obvious by the fact that it was the third preseason game where it was finally discovered/reported, and his response was a mushy, not-very-well-formed response.

To be fair, Colin Kaepernick had an opportunity to further clarify his responses, and did, albeit not in a sound-bite sort of way.  But it also made me ask: What do you propose to do?

At the same time, these protests have spread.

Still Powerful
People of color around the NFL, and other sporting events, started to do the same thing, sitting or kneeling during the national anthem.  Some raised their fists in similar fashion to the athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won gold and bronze in the 200m in the 1968 Olympic Games.

"The pair both wore black socks and no shoes and Smith wore a black scarf around his neck," a BBC report said back in 1968.  "They were demonstrating against continuing racial discrimination of black people in the United States."

That students today seem to have seen power in this protest maybe shouldn't be seen as a surprise, especially when you dig into the history of the 1968 protest in the first place.  Smith, who was a student at San Jose State at the time, said that "black members of the American Olympic team were considering a total boycott of the 1968 games," according to the BBC article.

Predictably, the IOC suspended them from Mexico City's Olympic Village and sent them home, but the symbol of that moment - still powerful to me, after all of these years - remains. 

(Another piece of history, very pertinent but often forgotten, is that the Australian silver medalist - Peter Norman - wore a badge on his jacket, also seen in the photo, to display his solidarity, representing the "Olympic Project for Human Rights".)

The 1968 protests had a deep and profound effect on the African-American community on the West Coast.  San Jose State and Oakland have murals devoted to the protest, and several documentaries have been made of their act of civil disobedience.  To many, their act was a powerful act of defiance, making a captive audience listen to what they have to say.

And did they have a positive effect?  One can argue that they did.

Martin Luther King Jr., who was murdered only four months before the Mexico City protest, certainly led people to do the true hard work towards better race relations, but the 1968 Olympic protest definitely seemed to keep those issues in the forefront, and kept a focus on them.

The million dollar question is: does Colin Kaepernick's flavor of protest rise to the standard of the iconic 1968 protest?

The protest, like the 1968 one, seems to be viewed differently depending on which community is watching it.

People of color and those sympathetic to their case appear to see it on par as the 1968 protest, and see it as putting a voice to, in their minds, victims of violence from policemen in places like Ferguson, Missouri.

However many others see it as a referendum on civil rights in general, greeting it with a "wasn't racial discrimination actually solved during the last five years?"

Both sides of the argument have valid points, something that's underscored in a 2011 poll from USA Today on race relations.  In a way, it shows how both sides see the "debate":
"All the segregation is gone," says Cody Czajka, 21, an Air Force medic from Moyock, N.C., who is white. In the military, he says, race "is not allowed to matter. We have a zero-tolerance policy." 
That's not how the nation looks to George Evans, 56, a house painter from Sanford, Fla., who is black. "Racism to a certain degree is still there, especially in the court systems," he says. "Some of it is more subtle than it used to be. Some of it is flat-out aggressive."
Five years later, it doesn't feel like this line has moved very much.  Racially inflamed incidents like Ferguson still do happen, and there are people who feel like their voices are not being heard.  Segregation might be "gone", but "racism" is most certainly not over, and it's certainly worth a reminder that racial relations are not "fixed".

So in that sense, the protests have had that positive effect.  I am not predisposed to talk about Ferguson, or police brutality.  Yet here I am.  Kaepernick's protest, the Penn cheerleaders' protest, has gotten me out of my comfort zone to tackle a big topic.

But my big question is:does it actually work?  Does this form of protest actually get other people to think about the state of race in America, and, most importantly, make changes for the better?

Or, in this current climate, is such a conversation impossible?

"So you raised this spoiled brat!," one venomous commenter says in the comment section of The Daily Pennsylvanian article, responding to a statement from a military-serving mother of the protesting cheerleader.  "Congratulations, you've achieved your goal. She's a a self absorbed, self involved self important virtue signaler who will no doubt do well for herself at the expense of those less fortunate than herself."

Anyone who thinks that life online or offline is currently normal in any sense ought to parse that statement and think, for one fleeting moment, whether the person who wrote that would actually physically stand in front of the mother and read these exact words to her face.

But more to the point, what is also true is that the protest of the Penn cheerleaders has had a direct, inflaming effect on a large swath of people.  It moved someone to write a white-hot flaming take to the mother of a young woman who is going to an Ivy League school.  And whether you like it or not, their opinion isn't a voice in the wilderness.

To the person writing this comment - and I'm not condoning it whatsoever - there's no dialogue.  There's no making things better.  There's no movement.

And that's just it - there is no solution to the race problem in America without the people who are upset at people disrespecting what they value.

There are lots of people out there who might ordinarily have a great deal of sympathy towards the plight of people getting unjustly treated by police.

Yet it's the very form of the protest that forces them out of the picture.  By doing it in this way, you will never reach those people, and it's those very people that you will need in order to make positive change.

It might fleetingly feel good to piss someone off, but you won't solve anything.

There are two sides to the anthem protests.

One side, who feels better about themselves making a gesture - but not having anything really behind it.  Where's the charity to donate to?  The organization in place to try to make positive change?  Where's pretty much anything that is positive out of it?  I'm willing to listen - but don't just do a Facebook post, and then leave it at that.

And the other side - who may feel better about making a sort-of gesture in leaving a comment to the parent of a protester - but cowardly hiding behind the internet, rather than being upfront and telling that person to their face how they really feel.  I'm willing to listen to people who are offended by the anthem protests - but don't just post a Facebook comment, and leave it at that.

So here's the challenge: Enough with the bullshit gestures.  Enough with the personal attacks.  Enough with keeping score.  Start something real.  Find out solutions.

Work with elected representatives, Democrats and Republicans, cops, firefighters, community leaders, and start working things out.  Colin Kaepernick, Penn cheerleaders (sorry), and many, many other athletes, can use this opportunity to make this into a broader conversation about racial relations and an attempt to make material improvements that bring positive change in other people's lives.  And that, more than anything, is what I desperately hope is the end result of the anthem protest.

Or it could just be another series of empty gestures, gestures that are easy to do and make both sides secretly feel great about themselves, without any of the real, hard work that might make the gesture into something much more substantial.

That's the challenge I have for people.  Gestures are empty without the hard work of overcoming the polarization of the world today.  And to make positive change, you need to do the hard political work, patience, and devotion of time and resources.

Gestures - kneeling and commenting - are easy. Doing actual work is hard.  Will gestures lead to actual work?


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