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Rosa Parks, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. all changed the course of history through peaceful protests. From fighting for civil rights to combating repressive taxes, these three trailblazers used non-violence to ensure social justice for all. These leaders fought against an oppressive government to make a stand for the voiceless, the powerless and the forgotten. America was built by people protesting the British government, and our founding fathers established our rights to the freedom of speech, assembly, and press; yet many were outraged in 2016 when one NFL player, Colin Kaepernick, took a stand by kneeling during the National Anthem. Kaepernick used his platform as a NFL player to bring awareness to the unjust police violence and systemic inequality against people of color in modern day America, but his message got lost and misconstrued by many through politics and misleading news.
The article “Disrespecting the flag is a disgraceful way to protest Trump”, is an op-ed published by The Washington Post. The author, Marc Thiessen, calls Colin Kaepernick’s act of kneeling during the National Anthem a disgraceful and offensive protest, specifically disrespectful towards the flag and the sacrifice of veterans. Thiessen argues that this disrespect for the flag is not the proper means to protest Donald Trump. He also states that according to the NFL’s game operations manual, all players must stand on the sideline for the National Anthem. Although Thiessen states that “athletes do have a constitutional right to engage in speech that is offensive to millions of Americas”, they are not protected against the ramifications of their actions. Thiessen’s opinion is that congress should act against NFL players kneeling and that NFL coaches shouldn’t let players play if they are going to kneel. Thiessen’s perspective of NFL players kneeling during the anthem is based on his values of patriotism, respect, loyalty and devotion to America. The whole basis of his argument is founded in his belief that the players are intentionally and purposefully disrespecting our country, president, fallen war heroes and veterans.
Although I disagree with Thiessen’s position on this matter, I can understand where he is coming from; he is using his internal sense of goodness as a guide. He is holding his beliefs and values as a privileged White male as accurate without taking a deeper look into the reality of the situation. He isn’t trying to understand the other side’s perspective, and he is inadvertently labeling these NFL players as anti-American and unpatriotic. By stereotyping these Black NFL players, Thiessen further alienates and oppresses a population that has endured years of discrimination. Critics like Thiessen are sending a subliminal message to Black NFL players that screams, “you don’t matter; we don’t care what you have to say”. While Thiessen continues to partake in this power struggle of right versus wrong in his head, he blindly misses the mark on the true issue at hand: social injustice and racial discrimination. I believe Thiessen doesn’t make a strong point in his article because he doesn’t even understand the reasoning behind the kneeling. He believes the players are kneeling to protest Donald Trump, which is not the message the players are trying to make. Kaepernick and fellow players are kneeling to bring awareness to the unjust police brutality against Black men and the countless innocent Black lives that have been lost. Thiessen believes that Kaepernick is on a political mission when in fact that isn’t the case at all. It isn’t a political issue that players are kneeling for, it is a human issue. While I can understand Thiessen’s knee-jerk reaction to protect our nation from being disrespected, the core reasoning behind kneeling has nothing to do with showing disdain towards the men and women who fight for our freedoms. Throughout countless interviews, Kaepernick describes his upmost respect for all members of the armed forces, which is why he decided to kneel and not sit during the anthem. Kaepernick consulted a retired Green Beret and former NFL player, Nate Boyer, who educated Kaepernick on the meaning behind kneeling which led Kaepernick to kneel instead of sit during the anthem. “I expressed to him, maybe there’s a different way of demonstrating, where you’re showing more respect for those who laid down their lives for what that flag and anthem stand for, ” Boyer said of his conversation with Kaepernick. “I suggested kneeling, because people kneel to pray; we’ll kneel in front of a fallen brother’s grave”.
Overall, this exercise has solidified my beliefs on this issue and has shed light on a deeper meaning of understanding behind this conflict; I believe the backlash against Colin Kaepernick is a form of victim blaming. According to a New York Times article, “black boys fare worse than white boys in 99 percent of America”. There is a systematic injustice towards black men rooted in our culture that perpetuates a cycle of incarceration, homicide, and untreated mental health issues. Statistically black men have endured years of unfair and unjust treatment from birth to adulthood, and now that these black men are using their voices to rise-up and bring awareness to current issues, critics are pointing the finger back at the victim, the black male.
Although our country has come a far way from the Jim Crow Era and segregation, modern day racism is alive and is affecting the lives of black men and woman around our country. We must follow the pioneer’s footsteps to push our policies and laws towards equality and justice for all. As social workers, our primary mission described in the NASW Code of Ethics is “to help meet the basic human needs of all people, with attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty”. There are many challenges we will face but I believe we must overcome the obstacles with boldness and creativity. Whether it is football players kneeling or citizens showing up to vote, together, we can make an impact. As Margaret Mead said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.
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