Protests of the US national anthem by athletes are doomed to failure because they are perceived as attacks on America itself, not just racism.
Now that the National Football League (NFL) has blinked in the showdown over players sitting and kneeling during the playing of the US national anthem, it’s a good time to look at why the protests were doomed to failure from the start.
The protesting players wanted to raise awareness about abuses of power by police. Concerns over such abuses are widespread and have the potential to unite liberals, conservatives and libertarians in the search for solutions. But the method chosen by the protesters couldn’t have been more divisive, dooming their effort to failure.
The national anthem and the flag are symbols of the American nation, serving the same unifying purpose as those of other nations across the world. Absent their symbolic value, they would just be an old English drinking song and a piece of red-white-and-blue cloth. It’s that symbolic value which prompted protesters to target the anthem, drawing a negative reaction from most of their fellow citizens.
Since the 1980s, the fight against illegal drugs and rising rates of violent crime produced a political climate that allowed police in the US to greatly expand their power and limit their accountability for abuses. Though crime rates began to fall in the 1990s, fear of crime remained high in public perceptions, bolstering support for expanded, more aggressive policing combined with weak oversight.
But recent widespread reports of abuses — many seen as racially motivated — have left many black Americans in particular feeling as if they are powerless to influence how laws are enforced in their communities. Even in cities where black leaders dominate the political and judicial structure that controls law enforcement, many minority residents believe racial bias permeates the system, and they have reacted with protests and street violence.
Though race has been a factor in some of the well-publicized police abuse cases, there are bigger factors at play, most notably the militarization of police, as detailed in journalist Radley Balko’s book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, which has led to them being seen in many communities as an occupying army. Impunity also is a factor, even in cases where officers overreacted, like the shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota.
Calls for reform from both liberal and conservative activists and politicians had come long before quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to sit for the national anthem at a San Francisco 49ers game on August 26, 2016, triggering a nationwide protest by football players and other athletes that mushroomed after President Donald Trump jumped in during September 2017 and said NFL owners should fire protesting players.
But Kaepernick had already fatally doomed the protest by setting a tone for it that was guaranteed to draw opposition from most Americans. In a statement released by his team after the first protest, Kaepernick said: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
THE LEFT IN AMERICA
It’s not unusual for protests from the left to target national symbols. The practice of flag burning as a form of political protest emerged out of the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s and has been declared a constitutionally-protected form of free expression. Though legal, it’s not without a social cost: By targeting universal symbols of the American community, the left has marginalized itself as a political force relative to its strength in other countries.
The protesting athletes see themselves as heirs to the civil rights movement. In fact, they are kneeling into a headwind of disapproval from most Americans who see disrespect for the national symbols as disrespect for the nation itself. They are inviting their fellow countrymen to disregard their opinion because they are delegitimizing the community itself.
It’s one thing to protest racism in policing in America. It’s something entirely different to claim America is racist.
This was not the moral tone set for the civil rights movement by Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial. King, who was a master of rhetoric, portrayed racism and discrimination as anti-American, and declared that black people were entitled to the promise of the nation’s founding documents as much as anyone else.
“When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” King said. “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”
The protests may drag on as NFL owners consider whether to require them to end amid complaints that the league is stifling the free speech of players. But they have already failed because Americans, including those who agree with the underlying issue of police abuses, stand against them.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.