Joining the military, especially the Marines, is a huge decision. It’s a commitment not only in time, but potentially of one’s very life. When I voluntarily joined, I accepted the fact that I could be called to go to war. I didn’t join to go to war (some Marines join for no other reason than to go to war and see combat), but there was definitely a sense of patriotism in joining a branch where going to the frontlines to “defend freedom” is a real possibility. I enlisted mostly because I love this country and felt an obligation to do my part by serving in the military, as do almost all who swore the oath.
Responding to a question about players kneeling during the national anthem, a form of protest begun by Colin Kaepernick, Drew Brees stated he will “never agree with anyone disrespecting the flag.” He cited his sense of patriotism and the fact that his grandparents fought in wars to allow him to play football today. When I saw this response by Brees, I cringed because his sense of patriotism blinded him to the message that the kneeling represented. Brees no doubt voices the sentiment of many other Americans who have/had a problem with players kneeling during the national anthem.
Let’s be clear: kneeling during the anthem was never about disrespecting the flag or the country. It was a message to draw attention to police brutality as it relates to American citizens of color, especially African Americans. Equating players kneeling during the anthem to disrespecting the flag or disrespecting America is missing the message altogether.
Let’s also be honest: patriotism is a powerful tool. Americans are nothing if not patriotic, and media outlets are quick to label people who are “patriots” and those who are not, such as calling someone “un-American” or “unpatriotic” because he/she kneels during the national anthem. Labeling people as unpatriotic builds walls of intolerance which can be used to control behavior. “Don’t listen to Kaepernick. He’s unpatrotic! He kneels for the national anthem!” It worked with Drew Brees, who missed the message by focusing on the protest instead of the message itself. Fortunately many Americans are now realizing how wrong they were to criticize Kaepernick and are offering their apologies. Blind patriotism is dangerous and divisive.
Furthermore, disrespecting the flag is probably the most patriotic thing an American citizen can do, and I fully support the players that kneel during the national athem as well as the protesters who burn the flag. Freedom is foundational to the United States. If you are an American citizen, you are free to practice your religion, openly criticize the government, organize and protest whatever you desire, and live your life the way you want, so long as it doesn’t impose/infringe on the freedoms of others. Tantamount to this freedom is the freedom to burn the flag, to give the United States the ultimate “Fuck you!” This freedom is not enjoyed by those living under dictatorial/authoritian regimes, so count youselves lucky/blessed to have the freedom to burn the flag; those actions could be the end of your life in other countries.
Perhaps the greatest attribute of the United States is the desire to form a “more perfect union.” In those words, Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers knew that in order for America to succeed, it cannot remain stagnant. It cannot think of itself as perfect and thus rest on its laurels. We as citizens are required to judge America and continue the process left by the Founding Fathers to make our country a better place for all citizens. We do this by using our freedom of speech, such as kneeling during the national anthem. As a result, America has changed and become a great nation throughout its history, but there are still plenty of flaws that need to be addressed.
America must continue to make itself a more perfect union, and that cannot happen if citizens are silenced by blind patriotism, even players that take a knee during the national anthem. They, like the Vietnam War protesters in the 1960s, are following Jefferson’s call: to make America more perfect by pointing out areas where it is clearly imperfect and calling for a change to be better, to be more perfect. Kaepernick and others that want to make America a better place are just as patriotic as anyone else, perhaps even moreso.
If you have a problem with people kneeling during the anthem because you feel it disrespects the flag, or if you have a problem with people burning the flag in general, check your patriotism. You are spitting on the foundations of freedom that the Founding Fathers intended all citizens to have. The United States of America is the “land of the free,” and that freedom, including the freedom to burn the symbol of the government, is crucial for living in a free society. When people want to condemn those that use their freedoms in ways in which you might disagree (like protesting police brutality), you may be missing the point of what it means to live in a free society.
I realized long ago that one of the reasons I served is to protect your freedom, my freedom, Kaepernick’s freedom to kneel during the anthem, and protesters’ freedom to burn the flag. To paraphrase Evelyn Beatrice Hall, I may not agree with the reason why you burn the flag, but I’m willing to die for you to be able to have the freedom to burn it. I hope the same can be said for others who judge the players who kneel for the anthem: I may not agree with the reason for your protest, but I fully support your right/freedom to kneel during the national anthem and seek change.