Kaepernick and our flag’s contested symbolism

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On Friday, Aug. 26, 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick exercised his First Amendment right to free speech, catapulting himself into the political arena. Although he did not exercise this freedom in the traditional sense, with words, by sitting during the National Anthem, Kaepernick implied many sentiments.

The backup quarterback began his protest before the first preseason game and has pledged not to stand in observance of the flag during any of the pregame anthems this season. Wearing street clothes for the first two games, Kaepernick’s protest went unnoticed until the 49ers–Packers game in which he dressed out and played. Despite backlash from fellow football players, police unions and numerous fans, Kaepernick continued his protest on Thursday, Sept. 1, before the preseason game in San Diego. Instead of sitting, Kaepernick, along with 49ers safety Eric Reid, kneeled in protest during the anthem.

The game played in San Diego occurred on the Chargers’ 28th Annual Salute to the Military, where Petty Of- ficer 1st Class Steven Powell from the U.S. Navy performed the National Anthem and 240 sailors, marines and soldiers presented an oversized American flag. Many armed forces members, like those in attendance, have taken offense to Kaepernick’s protest, and so have their supporters.

One of those supporters, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, noted his exposure to the armed forces through United Service Organizations tours and the history his family has in serving the country. On Twitter the Saints quarterback refined his stance, saying that he “agree[s] with his protest,” but not with his method.

Members of the armed forces and their supporters have taken issue with Kaepernick’s protest because they believe his gesture protests the United States as a whole, including its armed forces. As a protest, they think it disrespects the service of soldiers and shows a disregard for the sacrifices that soldiers have made in order for Americans to enjoy their freedom.

Explaining that he refuses “to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick’s protest obviously does not mean to insult the U.S. Armed Forces. “I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country,” Kaepernick said. “I have family. I have friends that gone and fought for this country. They fight for freedom. They fight for the people. They fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up as far as, you know, giving freedom and justice and liberty to everybody.”

To Kaepernick, looking to the flag and singing the anthem implies supporting the oppression of African Americans by police. To others, looking to this flag implies support in the military, in the men who fought in the world wars against fascist regimes, in the family members who currently serve overseas.

The issue with Kaepernick’s protest, then, is not his method, as Brees asserted, but how the flag signifies something different to Kaepernick and others. While people like Drew Brees find themselves moved to tears because the anthem is that powerful, people like Kaepernick think about the black lives lost to encounters with the police. Te symbol that represents the Constitution to some may represent Kaepernick and our fag’s contested symbolism something else entirely to others.

To Kaepernick, it does not stand for his right to free speech. Instead, it stands for a country that allows police officers to go unpunished for killing black men.

Before claiming that Kaepernick is illogical for protesting a symbol that represents his right to protest, one must consider that people have different opinions and different perspectives. Kaepernick understands that he has a right to free speech, but he does not associate the anthem or the flag with that right.

People will be offended by Kaepernick’s protest of the flag. Many people love the symbol, identifying it with everything that they love about the country. People will be offended by many things, and it is our right to be offended.

People view symbols differently. Although some Americans may see the flag and think of their loved ones overseas, others may see their loved ones suffering domestically. We cannot tell each other how to view something.