Protests against injustice are as American as apple pie. Without protests, we’d still be a British colony. It began with the Boston Tea Party — there’s a reason the team’s called the New England Patriots.
Sadly, the current occupant of the Oval Office profoundly misunderstands what it means to be a patriotic American. That’s not a sentence I ever imagined writing — but I never imagined having a president so hostile to democratic rights — and so eager to use his bully pulpit to bully other citizens. Now he’s messing with Americans’ two favorite things: freedom and major league sports.
Trump seems intent on fomenting racial divisions — from referring to “very fine people” among neo-Nazis in Charlottesville to hurling an unprintable curse Friday night against a biracial Super Bowl quarterback who’s paid a high price for taking a taking a knee and a principled stand against racism, and others who’ve joined him. Trump doubled- and tripled-down on Twitter, demanding NFL owners fire players who protest and fans boycott games, and picking a separate fight with black basketball players. Trump wants to divide us, but with his anti-American attack on American values and pastimes, he might end up uniting us — and not in ways he expected.
Trump couldn’t be more wrong when he says taking a knee during the national anthem is unpatriotic or an insult to the military and first responders. The flag and national anthem don’t belong to Trump; they belong to all of us, and there is nothing more patriotic than respecting our constitution enough to peacefully protest inequities and trust our democratic system is strong enough that “we the people” can fix it.
First among America’s freedoms are our rights to free speech and to petition the government for “redress of grievances” — and when I say “first,” I mean that literally. Tragically, 37 percent of Americans can’t name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment; another seven percent answered wrong, according to a recent survey. How many of those cast votes for the angry demagogue who believes in the people so little as to thunder, “I alone can fix it” — and who now says we must bow to his views or be silenced? Two-thirds surveyed in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll now say Trump is dividing Americans; 57 percent disapprove of his performance.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a devout Christian adopted as a baby by a white family, explained when he first took a knee during the national anthem last year that his relatives and friends have served in the military (unlike Trump). They fought for “freedom . . . liberty and justice,” Kaepernick said, and his protest was meant to “unify this team…unify this country” by drawing attention to shootings and mistreatment of innocent blacks – including veterans — by authorities.
Taking a knee, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did in prayer and protest, is every American’s constitutional right. Though the fawning loyalty oaths Trump extracted from cabinet members and demanded of then-FBI director James Comey suggest otherwise, this isn’t North Korea where blindly saluting symbols and leaders is mandatory.
Telling black athletes to be grateful for their earnings and shut up — and urging owners and fans to punish them — boomeranged on Trump over the weekend, setting off silent protests by more than 150 players of all races and athletes in others sports, and drawing rebukes from the NFL commissioner, owners, and managers.
No NFL owners are black and at least eight of them, including the Patriots’ Robert Kraft, supported Trump’s campaign and donated to his inauguration. So it must have come as a surprise to Trump when even Kraft expressed “deep disappointment” in the president, saying his players are “intelligent, thoughtful, and care deeply about our community and I support their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness.” Quarterback Tom Brady, also reputedly a Trump friend, linked arms with teammates and posted an Instagram photo with running back James White, who is black, with the words “Brotherhood,” “Unity,” and “Respect.”
Kaepernick took the 49ers to the Super Bowl, but has been jobless this season, too controversial. Trump’s outrageous demands practically force the league to defy the president to stand up for democracy. Maybe Kaepernick will get a contract now.
Meanwhile, so many more important things should concern the president: A potential nuclear standoff with North Korea; millions of Americans from Puerto Rico to Texas and Florida cut off from services or without homes and livelihoods after devastating hurricanes; a raging fight over affordable health care; an investigation of Russia’s malevolent hacking of our election and any collusion by Americans.
That Trump prefers instead to divert attention by igniting a culture war shouldn’t be surprising. In the campaign, he supercharged resentment among whites who felt dislocated in a demographically changing America. He knew the hot buttons to push: he promised a wall and a Muslim ban; he urged police to use more force and fill more jails.
Trump has now dispensed with the race-baiting dog whistle in favor of an air horn. His actions suggest he wants to turn white sports fans against black athletes who love their country enough to highlight its imperfections to correct them.
I’m not saying the NFL will be Trump’s Waterloo. But it may be a turning point where enough Americans grow tired of a being bullied and remember it’s our freedoms — not a self-serving president — that make our country great.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.