This may come as a surprise to many Americans but protest is not meant to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. The very nature of protest is incendiary. It’s meant to target entrenched institutions and highlight the issues within said institutions. In 1968 at the Olympics in Mexico City, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists and bowed their heads on the podium, it was not to make Americans feel good. It was to raise awareness and to protest the very nature of the racial divide in this nation.
When Colin Kaepernick made the decision to sit - and later kneel - during the “Star Spangled Banner” 48 years after those Mexico City Olympics, he did so to protest a nation that has taken the five decades since the Civil Rights movement to grow further apart. We are living in a time where the only thing more shocking than the police brutality faced by black Americans is the nation's willingness to silence those crying out for help. Despite what your average keyboard warrior might believe, we do not give press conferences to those who are in the most pain in the country.
We do, however, give them to our most prominent citizens, something that hasn’t been lost on athletes and celebrities. When Colin Kaepernick took a seat, his actions were noticed not just by the public - inflamed and admiring in equal turn - but also by his fellow athletes. One of them being Megan Rapinoe, forward for the USWNT and the Seattle Reign.
Her decision to kneel during the national anthem during Seattle’s September 4th match against Chicago certainly extended the conversation another news cycle. When she noted that she would do this for the rest of the season - a mere three games in all actuality unless the Reign makes a hard push for the playoffs - all team owners had to do was allow it to happen. The media is a notoriously busy entity, catching fire as quickly as they allow that fire to burn out into the next big thing. Simple as that.
Instead Washington Spirit owner Bill Lynch, decided to fan those flames and in doing so ensured that this protest gathers steam. Perhaps Lynch and likeminded patriots should look no further than Colin Kaepernick’s soaring jersey sales to survey the tide of public opinion. My issue is not just that Bill Lynch took it upon himself to silence a non-violent protest - that in itself is deplorable - but the fact that he did so broadly under the label of his veteran status.
Here’s where it gets personal. Everything that I have in my life is thanks to the United States Air Force. My father is a retired officer and a veteran. He is also a black man. Amazingly, he can be both at the same time. It is impossible to disentangle identities, just as I was a black woman in this country when I started writing and I will be a black woman in this country when I am done.
We have a tendency as Americans to think of the troops and our veterans as a monolithic entity, as alike as the very uniforms they wear in defense of this country. The truth is a little bit harder to swallow. The truth is that the veterans in this nation are as diverse of mind and body as those they fight and die to protect. To represent veterans as people who suppress speech, who curb the flow of peaceful protest is to spit on the very thing that many of them gave their lives to ensure would never happen in this country.
For the record, some of those troops have been trying to get you to understand that. Look no further than the #VeteransForKaepernick and you’ll see said diversity of mind and body. You’ll see people who understand that identity is not singular. Somebody is not simply a veteran of this nation’s military without also being white or black, gay or straight, and on and on and on.
It is incredibly rich in a country where many of our war veterans from Vietnam to Afghanistan have returned home to barely funded veterans’ programs. To people who want to salute them and silence people in their name but don’t care if they can get proper medical or mental health care. To people who are willing to clap them off of airplanes but wouldn’t hand them a dollar if they end up on the street. Because we are good at a great many things, but taking actual care of our veterans is not one.
And let’s not forget that we have a history in this country of treating our white veterans with a level of comfort and respect that we do not afford non-white veterans. Look no further than the disparity in dispensation of GI Bill benefits and housing subsidies post-WWII. Even further back look at the treatment of the Buffalo Soldiers. There’s a reason the United States has developed unequally among its citizens and that reason is not as organic as we’d like to think.
In the two years since Ferguson, we’ve seen protests come in many shapes and forms. Many of them purposefully disruptive whether blocking off highways or streets. These types of protest have their place in our democracy but often black people are told that if they would just protest peacefully then they’ll be heard. There’s nothing more peaceful than kneeling during the national anthem. And yet, there seems to be pushback against that too.
So if you can’t protest violently and you can’t protest non-violently, what is the nature of democracy in the United States in 2016? The United States is a nation built on protest of a highly disruptive nature. We cannot celebrate our forefathers dumping tea into the Boston Harbor then turn around and tell black people to put up and shut up.
America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. It takes a certain type of bravery to protest in the face of injustice against the grain of people tell you to be quiet or else.
And black people in this country are in pain. We are hurting. We are experiencing the end result of decades of policing and governmental policy that had the effect of disenfranchising our community. When Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during the national anthem he is acknowledging that right now, in this moment, that anthem doesn’t seem to be talking about him. When Megan Rapinoe takes a knee, she is acknowledging that she hears that pain and she is kneeling in solidarity.
That’s what America should be about. But it’s just sports, right? Shut up and play. Well, throughout history sports have been an arena through which we have aired our political grievances. Sports are one of the only things, at times, we can all agree on. So it is that much more powerful when their routine flow is interrupted.
Protest is not meant to make you feel good about yourself. It’s meant to make you think, it’s meant to burn down the very institutions that seek to oppress and control. By attempting to use his institutional power to control the focus of the night, Bill Lynch did the exact opposite. He gave Megan Rapinoe a grander platform, he gave the cause a grander platform.
There is not one single person who can speak for all veterans and by claiming to do so Bill Lynch’s actions backfired in his face.