From the Boston Tea Party to the Black Lives America has a long a history of civil disobedience and have even elevated those dissenters to hero status. But while we may honor the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Congressman John Lewis, members of the Boston Tea Party and the Civil Rights Movement, often their fellow citizens at the time were not so kind to these practitioners of civil disobedience; it’s only through the lens of history have their roles been exalted. How many times throughout our history have we denounced dissent although our country’s foundation was built upon it? In fact, far too many of us dismiss our sordid history by smothering that part of our history under a blanket of patriotism just as many are trying to smother the voices of dissent today.
In a recent pedestrian and laughable op ed by David Brooks, he admonishes high school football players for "pulling a Kaepernick" during the playing of the national anthem. He invokes Martin Luther King, Jr., as so many white folks do in an attempt to make black folks feel guilty, by claiming MLK Jr sang the national anthem before he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Brooks clearly forgets that John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who raised their fists during the national anthem at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, are also looked upon as heroes. Something else he may want to forget but should heed is MLK Jr's passage from "Letter from Birmingham Jail":
‘I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.’ (Bold italics are mine.)
I get that many of my friends feel differently than I do about "taking a knee" during the national anthem, a song penned by a slave owner who believed black people were inferior in all regards to white people. So yes, I have a more sober view of our country than many it's true. Maybe that stems from having a degree in history. Who knows. However, I do love my country. I love herlike I loved my mother-in-law, whom I didn't always like because she had a mean streak. We have a mean streak that is interwoven throughout our history. Most of the atrocities in our history were and are perpetrated by our very own government. Decimation of native people. Slavery and Jim Crow. Japanese internment camps. The response to Katrina. Injecting in black with syphilis and testing chemical weapons on black servicemen. Sterilizing women of color.
We've had presidents who owned slaves and led armies against native tribes. We've had presidents who went to war on behalf of oil companies while telling soldiers they were fighting to defend our freedoms. HUD built housing on the most environmentally toxic sites with low grade materials and locked the people living there into poverty.
Consider Freddy Gray, victim of both government policy and policing. He was doomed the day he was born. Lead in his system. Not a good student. No escape from poverty. (Recently Baltimore took out a multi-million dollar loan to continue its revitalization projects, but I see nothing for the neighborhoods like Freddy Gray’s.) He turned to drug dealing and petty crime until one day cops, who were sick of Freddy always "skating," decided to rough him up before he was even put in the van. And during one of their traditional "joy rides," Freddy Gray's spine was severed. No one was held accountable. To me the circumstances of Freddy's birth and life were in some ways more tragic than his death.
Today we have the largest police organization endorsing Trump and police departments calling on the NFL to ban dissent among its players. Police departments have become militarized agencies of the government which means their call for censoring free speech is expressly forbidden by the Constitution. I find the idea that agencies trying to suppress the very dissent aimed at them to be much greater outrage and danger than kneeling during the national anthem, an almost perfect act of civil disobedience. But this attempt at suppression of dissenting voices by government agencies is hardly an aberration in our history, is it?
Will Colin Kaepernick's protest movement result in changes? Will it keep another black citizen from being executed by police? So far it hasn't. But then who thought a seamstress who refused to sit at the back of the bus would spark a movement.
Dissent is the purest, most beautiful form of patriotism. It shouts to the world that we love our country, but we are not blind to its tendency to nurture its mean streak. Colin Kaepernickhas demonstrated unmeasurable courage by taking a stand to make this country better, a country where a cheat and a liar like Tom Brady is revered and a young man kneeling for a just cause is reviled. If I had the opportunity, I would proudly kneel beside that young man because that's what a true patriot would do.