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Yvonne Abraham

Kneeling for the anthem is fitting protest

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid and quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem before the game against the Rams in Santa Clara, Calif., on Monday.Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Even after 23 years in this country, I’m still struck by how much national anthem singing we do here.

Why do we play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events, anyway? We don’t generally join in patriotic song during other quintessentially American pastimes — say, before a movie (imagine the audience on their feet for Key’s classic at a showing of “Sausage Party”), or before the hordes rush into stores on Black Friday (“Please stand, Walmart fans . . .”).

It started, as so many things do, with baseball. Marc Ferris, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem,” says the song was played at a game in Brooklyn as early as 1862. It was heard mostly just on opening days in subsequent years. It wasn’t played at every game until World War Two, when technology allowed one voice or instrument to fill a stadium and wartime patriotic fervor demanded it. Ferris says a couple of team owners resisted the daily anthem because they thought playing it so often cheapened its effect, leading spectators to take it less seriously.

Anybody who has stood for the anthem at Fenway beside someone whose right hand is on his Bud Lite and his left on his cellphone can relate. Still, we’re invited to rise and face the flag, not just at every baseball game, but at just about every other game, too. We do it because we’re patriotic, and also — as a legion of car ads and country songs demonstrates — because patriotism sells.

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Most of us go through the motions without really thinking, until a Colin Kaepernick comes along. The 49ers player now takes a knee during the anthem to protest racial inequality, including the unjustified killings of black men by police officers in several cities. Other athletes have started doing the same thing — or raising fists or locking arms.

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And a world of condemnation has descended, calling the protests disrespectful and un-American. Let’s go straight to the orange oligarch on this one.

“I think it’s a terrible thing,” Donald Trump said of Kaepernick’s protest. “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try.”

Love it or leave it, right? You don’t criticize this country. Not unless you’re Trump himself, who has spent more than a year conjuring a dystopia, arguing over and over that America has gone down the commode, a fact with which millions of his followers — almost all of them white — seem to agree.

Somehow, saying the lives of white Americans are bad — because of Mexican immigrants (rapists and drug smugglers), Muslims (terrorists), or the president (possibly a Muslim immigrant) — makes you a patriot. But let the people who are suffering, personally or in sympathy with others, be black, and suddenly, criticizing the way things are in this country becomes an act of treason.

Kaepernick and other players have done a vital thing, shining more light on the dearth of consequences for black deaths in custody. The NYPD officer who put Eric Garner in the chokehold that killed him was never indicted. And none of the officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray was convicted: Apparently he broke his own neck in that Baltimore police van.

Faced with that infuriating pattern, silently taking a knee during the anthem is the picture of respectful dissent. It isn’t a rejection of America; it is a wish for a better America. Calling out the harm done to black men by some police officers isn’t a condemnation of every uniform. It’s a wish for better policing.

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In taking their stand, the players have also drawn attention to “The Star-Spangled Banner” itself, which deserves a closer reading. The version we usually hear ends with a question: “O! Say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

We each have the right to answer that question as we see fit. The freedom to do so is what the flag is supposed to stand for. Without it, the country this immigrant swore allegiance to, and loves, doesn’t exist.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham
can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com.