San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is teaching us all an important civics lesson: Freedom is not free. The term, usually reserved to support war, can also be applied to the price Kaepernick is paying for his decision not to stand and sing the national anthem at NFL games as a protest of police killings of African-Americans.
His courageous stance may cost him his career, a consequence Kaepernick seems ready to accept. In many ways, the United States is a nation of tolerant people, but that is not the case when it comes to so-called patriotism, flag adoration and standing during the national anthem. We may be a nation founded on diversity, but take a stand against the national rituals of pledging allegiance to the flag and standing for the national anthem, and you will face the wrath of a nation of zealots.
Kaepernick doesn’t stand a chance on this one. He will be booed mercilessly each time his name is announced and when he enters a game. While he is not in violation of NFL policy by not standing, ultimately he will probably be released by the 49ers because his actions will be deemed a “distraction.”
A similar thing happened in 1991 when Seton Hall basketball player Marco Lokar refused to wear the American flag patch on his uniform at the start of the first Gulf War. A Catholic, Italian pacifist, Lokar had to quit the Seton Hall team and withdraw from the university after he and his pregnant wife received threats because of his stand. For his actions, Lokar was jeered each time he touched the ball in a game as the people in the arena hysterically shouted: “USA, USA.”
The late Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith did not immediately have U.S. flag patches sewn on UNC uniforms in 1991, when the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference schools did. Smith asked, why don’t we sew flag patches on college uniforms to support the homeless or social causes besides war? But reaction to Smith’s decision was swift and harsh; the flags were on a week later. The flag patches have been on UNC uniforms since 9/11 to coincide with the Pentagon’s endless war on terror.
My children have refused to recite the pledge of allegiance to the flag in school, and they have paid a price for that, facing harassment from both fellow students as well as teachers. Our family stands opposed to a national loyalty oath, which doubles as a state prayer. We do not resonate with the words “one nation under God” (whose god?) or believe that ours is a nation of “liberty and justice for all.”
General public reaction to any person who does not march lockstep in support of flag idolatry is nothing short of mob behavior. Non-conformers are called names, accused of disrespecting the military and harassed.
Recently, Sen. Richard Burr’s re-election campaign announced it will take Democratic challenger Deborah Ross to task because, when she was state director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, Ross opposed amending the U.S. Constitution to ban flag burning. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared flag burning a form of free speech. Try telling that to the American people and see where it gets you.
I think Jesse Jackson said it best in his opposition to criminalizing flag burning: “We are a nation of symbol over substance,” Jackson said.
I stand – or rather choose to sit – with Colin Kaepernick. He is a brave American. As much as the masses would like everyone in this “free” nation to follow the mob in unanimity of thought, I say, “No, thanks.” As a Catholic pacifist, I can say with confidence: “Jesus was never on the side of the mob.” I pledge my allegiance to Jesus and to justice, not to a flag or an anthem to the state.
Patrick O’Neill is co-founder of the Fr. Charles Mulholland Catholic Worker House, an intentional, pacifist community that provides hospitality to people in crisis.