Taking a Knee is Not Disrespectful
by Ted Miller
(Originally published in Tumbleweird November 2018)
I am a veteran. My parents are both veterans. I graduated from the United States Naval Academy, swore an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States, and served thirty years defending my country. I am proud to be an American.
Members of the military are taught specific rules of respect for the symbols of our nation. We stand and salute when the flag is raised, lowered, or passes by with a color guard. We stand and salute whenever and wherever the National Anthem is played or sung. When driving on a military installation during morning or evening colors, drivers pull over to the side of the road and stop out of respect.
We do these things as a sign of respect for our country because the flag and the anthem are symbols representing the ideals that bind us together as citizens. And those ideals are embodied in the Constitution. Not a person, not a party, not the President of the United States. Not a piece of red, white, and blue fabric. We show respect for an idea—an idea contained in a document that we swore to support and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
And so, not standing, not paying attention, or ignoring the National Anthem can seem disrespectful.
But people disrespect the flag and the anthem all the time. Many fans don’t bother to pause for the anthem while buying their beer, finding their seats, or making a last-minute dash to the restroom. The flag is used for commercial marketing, clothing (including bandanas and underwear), and countless ways contrary to the United States Flag Code (Title 4, U.S.C., Ch. 1). Where is the outcry over that?
In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, remained seated during the National Anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he explained to Steve Wyche of NFL Media. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” he said.
Shortly after Kaepernick’s initial protest, former Seahawks player Nate Boyer, also an Army Green Beret, reached out to Kaepernick. He suggested kneeling instead. "Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother's grave, you know, to show respect,” Boyer said on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. So Kaepernick began kneeling instead of staying seated.
The backlash began immediately and has continued ever since, with angry rhetoric on both sides. President Trump has said that any player who refuses to stand is a “son of a bitch” that should be fired. Fans are boycotting the NFL. Social media memes and arguments continue to flare up. When Nike made Colin Kaepernick their spokesman for a new campaign, people started burning their shoes in protest.
Some say that Colin Kaepernick should protest on his own time. They falsely accuse him of grandstanding instead of donating time and money for his cause. But the reality is that he has donated over a million dollars to charities that support oppressed communities. Many professional athletes have done the same and more. This year, basketball player LeBron James funded and partnered with his hometown of Akron, Ohio, to open a school specifically designed to overcome the challenges urban kids face.
But charity work to combat racism and police brutality has not gotten near the attention as Kaepernick’s simple, respectful protests.
Systemic racism and police brutality are a real problem in this country. Black people are much more likely to be killed by police, are incarcerated at much higher rates than white people for the same crimes, and are all too often stopped or questioned by police with no probable cause[i]. We’ve all seen the viral videos of 911 calls on black people for doing nothing other than going about their business.
It is disingenuous to claim that kneeling during the anthem is unpatriotic and disrespectful to veterans. To me, it is those claiming to speak for all veterans who are being disrespectful to those who fought and died to ensure Kaepernick’s right to protest.
Blind loyalty to the country, blind loyalty to symbols, and blind participation in patriotic displays isn’t patriotism. Coercing respect for a symbol is no respect at all. Respect must be earned, not demanded. We respect the United States and its symbols for what we as a nation aspire to be. That we can be a more perfect union with dignity, equality, freedom, and justice for all of our citizens. Taking a knee to call attention to how we’ve fallen short of those ideals is as American as it gets.