Why I Kneel: Freedom of Expression Includes the Right to Protest

My silent protest at Century Link Field on September 17, 2016. Photo by @zag08.

My silent protest at Century Link Field on September 17, 2016. Photo by @zag08.

Like many Americans, military service is a tradition in my family. My mother, father, step-father, older brother and both of my uncles all served in the US military. My parents served in wartime. My father in Korea, my step-father in Vietnam and my mother served in Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield and Storm.

I am a veteran, but I am not a hero. I served in the US Air Force Reserves from 1997 until 2003. I joined during peacetime for the college money, served with distinction, earning several commendations, but left the service in 2003 because I liked the idea of finishing college more than I liked the idea of going to fight in a war that I didn’t believe in.

I love my country, but I went to the James Baldwin School of Patriotism. Baldwin wrote, I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” I am a patriot, not a nationalist. I love my country, but I see her flaws.

On Saturday, before the Seattle Sounders play the Whitecaps, I will be kneeling during the US National Anthem in Section 122. This is not a political act. This is a cry for help.

Every year I stand before my government class and we read and discuss the Founding documents of our nation: Jefferson’s Declaration, Madison’s Constitution, and Marshall’s early verdicts. Over the last few years the gap between the freedoms and equality enshrined in those documents and the reality my students face--particularly my students of color--has become increasingly apparent.

I understand why many people are upset about the protests, but I do not think there are “right” and “wrong” times to protest injustice. I believe and I teach my students that society isn’t improved by stifling dissent, but by engaging dissenters in dialogue. We’ve seen time after time in US history that periods where national unity is called for often mask harm to marginalized communities: the Alien Act of 1918 and the Sedition Act during World War I, the Japanese Internment during World War II and the Jim Crow South afterwards, and the fivefold rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes after 9/11.

What middle class white America does not grasp is the absolute dread that people of color, particularly those in poverty, have of law enforcement.

So far this year US police have killed 816 people (as of 9/14/16). In 2015, the number was 1,207. Many of these people were armed or “resisting arrest." But the penalty for resisting arrest is not summary execution by an agent of the state. Some of these incidents were captured on video and viewed by millions. But the vast, vast majority happened with little to no coverage from social media and the national press.

This is what these protests are about.

The protests started by Kaepernick, continued by Rapinoe and coming soon to GA, are an attempt to gain the attention of the apolitical, unaffected and unconcerned. Aside from the President, the most visible Blacks in America are professional athletes. Kaepernick is not fighting for himself--he is fighting for the voiceless. As a society, we have allowed the normalization of use of force by officers of the law upon some of the most vulnerable members of our population. These protests are an attempt to get the nation’s attention on the biggest possible stage.

Herculez Gomez was recently asked about the protests in the Seattle Times. He responded that “If you were to have asked me this 10 years ago, it would have been very different. I would’ve told you about me getting pulled over at 16, being asked to show my license and registration, reaching in the glove compartment for it and all of a sudden getting a handgun in my face — because the cop was scared I was reaching for something else.” This resonates with me. Herc and I are roughly the same age. I have family in law enforcement. My most terrifying encounters with law enforcement are now decades old. I imagine, if I didn’t have frequent contact with young people, I might feel as he does. But as a teacher in a low income, urban school these issues have an immediacy for me. Everyday at Lincoln, I teach sixteen year-old Hercs and Colins and after listening to them day-after-day, year-after-year, I can’t remain neutral. I won’t.

When Muhammad Ali passed away in June, I wrote a piece criticizing athletes of the “$10 million endorsement era,” particularly Michael Jordan, for their silence on issues of justice. Many of the same people who praised Ali in his twilight years and after his death have contempt for Kaepernick and Rapinoe; the cognitive dissonance is stupefying. I applaud Kaepernick, someone I have reviled for half a decade, for taking a stand. I commend Rapinoe for joining him and keeping the conversation going. I will be kneeling during the anthem in the Brougham End and at Husky Stadium this weekend. If you want me to stand up during the anthem, stand with me.

Stand with me in advocating for reforms to policing like those proposed by Campaign Zero.

Stand with me in favor of body cameras.

Stand with me against militarization of police.

Stand with me against stop and frisk.

Stand with me against use of force laws that prevent officers who kill unarmed citizens from facing charges.

Stand with me against civil asset forfeiture.

Stand with me against mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders.

If you want me to stand up, stand with me.

 

This post was originally published on the Seattle Sounders fan blog, Sounder at Heart

 

Nathan Bowling

Republic of Cascadia