On Friday night a football player refused to stand for the national anthem.
In a statement against racial oppression, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick simply remained in his seat while others stood with their right hand over their heart. And in the process, he showed the world what it means to be an American.
There is no clearer emblem of liberty and justice than the American flag. It symbolizes our country’s commitment to human rights, equality and the pursuit of each individual’s idea of happiness.
Kaepernick, a biracial man who was raised by white adoptive parents, does not believe those basic rights are afforded to African-Americans and other minorities. He felt compelled to make his feelings known.
“I am not going to stand up and show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he told NFL Media following the exhibition football game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Obviously, not everyone agrees with Kaepernick’s assessment. But the American flag represents his right to speak out against any injustice he perceives.
He didn’t lead an anti-flag protest down the street. He didn’t set a flag on fire on the lawn of the San Francisco Police Department, though doing so would have been completely within his rights.
He didn’t disrupt the national anthem with shouts of “Black Lives Matter.” In fact, he didn’t say a word.
By remaining quietly in his seat at the exhibition football game, Kaepernick exercised one of the greatest gifts America guarantees its citizens under the Constitution — the freedom of speech.
Like many minorities, Kaepernick sees America as an imperfect nation, one that oppresses some groups while encouraging others to soar. He doesn’t believe that Americans can afford to stand by and watch quietly as authorities trample on the civil rights of citizens. To do so is hypocritical.
On Twitter, he has documented a string of events that are emblematic of the social and racial divide in America. He doesn’t like it when politicians try to turn their own citizens into the enemy, when a police officer shoots and kills a black man sitting innocently in his car or when students are silenced while trying to take a stand.
It is clear where he stands.
Take, for example, that profanity-laced email defending racial profiling that Maine Gov. Paul LePage left for a state lawmaker.
“You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy. And the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority right now coming in, are people of color or people of Hispanic origin,” the Republican governor said.
He tweeted about the incident in Buckeye, Arizona, where school administrators refused to allow 10th-grader Mariah Havard to take her class picture wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt.
There are links to police shootings in Milwaukee and Chicago, among other cities.
Some might look at Kaepernick’s social media posts and accuse him of being obsessed with race. But to others, it simply shows that he’s aware.
As someone in the public eye, he has chosen to use his platform as a voice for those who otherwise would be unheard, even if it means losing his own prestige and wealth. Not everyone has the guts to do that.
In exercising his free speech rights, Kaepernick was not disrespecting our military, as some have argued. If anything, he was recognizing the heroic contributions of our armed forces, whose job is to ensure that Americans always have the right to disagree with their government. And the right to stand or sit during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In some ways, Kaepernick is like a modern-day Muhammad Ali, who refused to fight in the Vietnam War, not only because it was a violation of his Muslim religion but because he did not believe America had always stood up for him.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Ali asked.
Many Americans scorned Ali for taking such a stance. His heavyweight boxing title was stripped from him.
It took years for people to realize that Ali did nothing wrong, though some never did.
Kaepernick faces a similar challenge in defending his patriotism. Some see his protest as an extension of Black Lives Matter, a movement that is feared and misunderstood.
But like Ali, Kaepernick doesn’t seem to care what others think. So, under the banner of our flag, he took a stand against injustice.
Because to him, that is what it means to be an American.
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.