The NFL Anthem Protest: Reconciling the Land of the Free AND the Home of the Brave

The timing is more than a little ironic.  Just as the Milwaukee Police Department released video showing Bucks guard Sterling Brown being tasered for double parking in a handicapped spot in front of a Walgreen’s — at 2:00 am — the NFL issues its new anthem “policy”.  The Milwaukee Police Department disciplined the officers involved in the incident, and apologized to Brown.  Brown issued a statement which said in part:

“Situations like mine and worse happen every day in the black community. Being a voice and a face for people who won’t be heard and don’t have the same platform as I have is a responsibility I take seriously.

The remainder of Brown’s statement advocates for nondiscriminatory treatment of people of color by police officers.  Nothing in that statement should offend anyone; it is a reflection of the principle of equality upon which this country was founded.

As we enter Memorial Day weekend, the flag will fly outside my house.  I will attend a parade and get teary eyed as I see the ever-fewer WWII veterans pass, most in wheelchair vans now, if able to attend at all.  I will think of my father, a disabled WWII vet, whose funeral recessional was “America the Beautiful”.  My dad would ALWAYS stand at attention for the anthem, with a hand over his heart, singing it with tone-deaf enthusiasm.  But he was also a very kind man, who had a special empathy for young men, many of whom would drop by our house to talk with him as he worked on his antique cars.

Back in the mid-60s, my older brother, who was in his early 20s, worked the night shift at a plant about 30 miles away.  He would drive his Mustang home to our house, routinely arriving about 3:00 am.  My bedroom window was on the driveway, and I vividly recall one night when I heard multiple cars pull into our driveway.  My father got up and yelled out my window, “Hey Jim, this is a !@# of a time to bring your friends home!”  I heard Jim break into surprised laughter.  The next morning, we learned that the local police had been routinely pulling Jim over on his way home from work for “routine checks”.  My father became very angry and went over to police headquarters to demand that his son be left alone.  The routine checks stopped.

His grandson, my son, now age 20, recently met up with several of his high school buddies returned home from college on break.  They decided on impulse to visit their high school to view the new athletic fields which had just begun construction at the close of their senior year.   Unfortunately, this bright idea occurred about 1:00 am.  Predictably, within minutes of the arrival of their varied vehicles into the school parking lot, the local police arrived.  One officer chatted with the young men (who represented a veritable UN of heritages), while another checked to be certain nothing was amiss.  The young men explained that they wanted to see the fields, but they couldn’t go after school while the high school girls were using them for fear of being thought “creepy”.  The officer acknowledged this, and mildly suggested that they might have visited on a weekend afternoon instead.  After a friendly discussion about the merits of various cars, they all said good night and dispersed.

Fifty years apart and some things have changed — but not as much for people of color, as evidenced by Sterling Brown’s recent experience.    My dad, ever one to stand up for his beliefs and his kids, would have been outraged by Brown’s plight.  As a mom of a 20 year old white son, I can only imagine the concern of any parent of color when their kid ventures out, especially at night, to do something harebrained like checking out the new high school athletic fields.   My dad went over to police headquarters and raised hell.  I didn’t have to do that.  But, for others in some contexts, this isn’t a viable option because of their color.  Even stopping by a drug store in the wee hours of the morning can be an invitation to trouble and violence.

So, taking a knee on a football sideline to bring attention to a very real civil rights problem seems the essence of the American ideal my dad and his generation fought to preserve.  No parent should have to live with the fear that a typical teenage heedless act or even law abiding conduct during the dark hours will have injurious or even fatal consequences.  No segment of society should be prohibited from peacefully protesting government actions it opposes, for whatever reasons.

Would I prefer to see NFL players standing at attention during the anthem?  Absolutely — when they do not have to feel compelled to, as Brown said, be “a voice and a face for people who won’t be heard and don’t have the same platform”.   After all, isn’t Memorial Day about remembering those who fought and died to ensure the very freedom Sterling Brown, Colin Kaepernick and others are seeking to exercise?  Happy Memorial Day everyone, and don’t forget to thank our veterans.

“O say does that star spangled banner yet wave . . . o’er the land of the free AND the home of the brave.”

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