As of this writing, I am days from my 27th birthday. While I don’t know the exact anniversary of the decision, I know that this also means that I’m coming up on about 14 years since the last time I’ve said the pledge of allegiance, and even longer since I’ve sung the national anthem. Like the vast majority of us raised in the public school system post-WWII, these were the staples with which we begun each day, a routine even more habitual than breakfast and teeth-brushing if for no other reason than we were surrounded by peers and authority figures reinforcing the expectation.
I still stood for them every day, mostly because of not being interested in the dirty looks I got when I refused. Most people seemed to accept this compromise if they noticed at all. My day proceeded as usual and I satisfied myself with the quiet protest of omission. From age 13 onward, I decided pledging to a symbol like a flag or singing a song for a nation just because it was expected wasn’t a virtue—it was just indoctrination.
When I heard about Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem because he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color”—his going one step beyond where I did in my eighth grade classroom and onward—I was impressed that I could still be surprised with the way mainstream America can rally against a brown body acting against American collective expectations.
Let me state outright: I don’t follow football or any sports really. Most of the athletes I can name are either married to my favorite actors and musicians or have been in the news for doing really terrible stuff. I had no idea that San Francisco had a football team, or that it was the 49’ers, or that their quarterback was a biracial 29-year-old from Wisconsin who grew up the adopted son of a middle class white couple after they had lost two of their children to heart defects.
Once I got over that initial shock that so innocuous a protest could anger so many people, I settled in to watch the controversy unfurl in its moderately predictable fashion: condescending op-eds with click-bait titles, varying shows of support, horrifying YouTube clips of people burning his jerseys (ironically contributing to it becoming a number-one seller), and so on. At the risk of appearing cynical, I almost feel as though we’ve read this book before.
I contend though that the most interesting part of the Kaepernick protest is not him or his supporters. It’s the incessant focus upon it largely to the exclusion of another very important protest. I don’t want to take anything away from Kaepernick. His actions are important and the attention he’s bringing to social injustice and institutional racism are remarkably brave uses of his privileged platform.
That said, the vast majority of the folks at my office water cooler and on my Facebook feed railing against this one man’s decision to silently remain seated had nothing to say about the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe literally putting their bodies on the line to block a climatologically disastrous, questionably legal beast of an oil pipeline through their sovereign lands. I don’t say that to shame any of them—I had to dig fairly deep for my own updates. It’s not really reasonable to expect that from everyone.
For me, the blame lies more with a media that seeks out a very particular kind of narrative, one in which protest can be easily dismissed. Kaepernick’s protest, for however complicated we can make the discussion, can still be boiled down to a rich athlete refusing to show respect for the symbols and traditions of the nation in which he lives. The majority of fans of that game stand for the national anthem. Most of the people watching the news stories do the same.
On the other hand, images of Native people having dogs released on them by operatives of Dakota Access for defending their water source are a lot harder to spin. They involve a much less thought-about group battling an influential oil company. People can argue over whether or not Kaepernick is a traitor or a courageous trailblazer. It’s much harder to debate about those Sioux protesters.
This cognitive dissonance is a symptom of a larger trend in American culture: the myth that there is any form of “acceptable protest.”
When Black Lives Matter protesters march in the streets against police brutality, every effort is made to undercut their efforts. When rioters unaffiliated with the movement use their demonstrations as an opportunity to loot, the easy story that the whole movement is an animalistic group of violent thugs persists. When they slow down traffic for protests, patently false stories spread that they blocked ambulances (a phenomenon that oddly is never brought up when it actually happens during sporting events).
When I was growing up, I remember a lot being made in my public school education of Martin Luther King and Ghandi and their insistence on non-violent dissent. Boycotts, sit-ins, picketing, all of these were the “correct” way, the way good people exercised their constitutional right to both petition and assembly. On the other hand, violent events like the Watts riots and the 1968 Democratic National Convention and what followed the Rodney King verdict were people with (perhaps) legitimate gripes losing control and letting their baser instincts get the better of them.
Even now, I can still understand the instinct to condemn property damage and violence as methods of direct action against social injustice. I tend to take it on a case-by-case basis, especially whenever I read about a new riot and remember the old MLK quote they never mentioned in all of those saintly lectures about his pacifistic altruism: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
What I didn’t understand back then was how many people called picketers and petitioners and dissidents against the Iraq War treasonous. They weren’t destroying anything. They weren’t causing any damage. They even created the single largest global peace rally in history. And yet, they were as monstrous as the violent folks I kept getting warned against, at least if I was understanding the dominant narrative being put forth.
This was around 2003, around the time that I stopped saying the pledge, around the time that I realized that the only acceptable action was the reinforcement of the status quo. The problem with protest has never been violence or property damage or even the general inconveniencing of people. The problem has always been that any demonstration against the institutions of power are necessarily destabilized through social unacceptability.
Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for a tune written to a British drinking song and made the national anthem less then a century ago is about as nonviolent a protest as you can get. The man literally did not move. This does not matter. To those who exist within the privileges of power, patriotism is a shroud of protection and he is an outsider challenging it.
Meanwhile, Native people and climate activists are attacked and ignored because the narrative they represent cannot be twisted into an affront to a sacred nation, or have its nuances shaven away through decades of reinterpretation. The only acceptable protest is the one that refuses to upset the power balance between oppressors and oppressed, and that is no protest at all.