The Universal Notebook: Oh, say can you sit?

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick seems an unlikely dissident. Doubtless many football fans didn’t even know he was biracial before he decided not to stand for the national anthem as a silent protest against racism and violence against black people.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick explained.

Kaepernick’s national anthem protest has provoked a great deal of soul searching, breast beating and tub thumping about the meaning of patriotism, a possibly meaningless term in a nation so divided.

Those on the right seem to want to force everyone to salute the flag and stand for the anthem. That’s not patriotism, that’s nationalism. Social conservatives don’t seem to recognize that dissent is patriotic, except when it serves their cause, such as defending the Second Amendment as though it granted them the inalienable right to overthrow the government by armed force.

In its most twisted and virulent form, this sort of “patriotism” is embodied in the Alabama minister who said anyone who does not stand for the national anthem should be shot. That’s not Christian or American.

Those on the left believe that if we are not free to sit during the playing of the national anthem, it dishonors millions of veterans who have served their country, that “You are not free to choose, you must do what you are told.” That’s not freedom, that’s dictatorship. My guess is most people think Kaepernick has every right to refuse to stand for “The Star Spangled Banner,” but also think there are better ways to take a stand (or take a knee) for racial justice.

I have heard people argue that the 1st Amendment guarantees Kaepernick and the handful of NFL players who have followed suit the freedom of speech to protest during the playing of the anthem. Actually, it doesn’t. The First Amendment only protects Americans from government infringements on free speech. It does not prevent private employers or coaches from doing so. There is no such thing as free speech in the workplace. Say or do something that displeases the powers-that-be and you can lose your job or your starting position. Kaepernick, who has a six-year $114 million contract, has staged his protest at considerable professional risk. He obviously believes in what he is doing.

Seattle Reign soccer player Megan Rapinoe, who is a lesbian, took up the cause, taking a knee during the anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick to protest the oppression of all minorities. But the next game, her protest was nipped in the bud when the owner of the home-team Washington Spirit had the national anthem played before the teams took the field. Spirit owner Bill Lynch had every right to deny Rapinoe a forum for her protest, but it wasn’t necessarily a smart move.

Just so, South Portland High School athletic director Todd Livingston tried to get out ahead of any Kaepernick copycats by tweeting that Red Riot players and fans should “face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart” when the national anthem is played. That is the anthem etiquette prescribed in the U.S. Code, but the U.S. Code does not prescribe any punishment or penalty for not standing during the anthem. That’s because the government can’t force you to salute the flag or stand for the anthem. I wonder what the punishment might be for a South Portland football player who decides Colin Kaepernick has the right idea?

All the attention Kaepernick has brought to the national anthem has made some Americans better informed about the “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its racist history. Not only was Francis Scott Key a slave owner, but the man who penned the phrase “the land of the free and the home of the brave” also once wrote that Africans in America were “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”

And the unsung third stanza of our national anthem boasts that “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,” a reference to runaway black slaves who fought for the British in the War of 1812.

So Colin Kaepernick seems to have chosen a very appropriate way to call attention to racism in America, simply refusing to stand for a song with a suspect racial history that is the anthem of a country that has elected a black president, but still hasn’t achieved anything like racial equality.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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