Tossing tea off a merchant ship into the harbor is disrespectful, as well as trespassing and destruction of property.
Taking up a seat at a lunch counter, one which you are prohibited from using because of the color of your skin, is disrespectful.
Burning your draft card, because you refuse to fight a war you do not believe in, is disrespectful. Using your body as a barrier to stop the desecration of ancestral burial grounds, because your people have already suffered from concerted efforts to eradicate them, is disrespectful.
The nature of protest is disrespect. An absence of respect for authority is only a bad thing if that authority has earned your respect, deserves your complete support.
The British government lost the respect of its American subjects because of a heavy tax burden and a lack of representation. The U.S. government lost the respect of African-Americans because of slavery, Jim Crow and police brutality; and it lost the respect of Native Americans because of a long history of broken treaties, land theft and massacre.
In NFL player Colin Kaepernick, we are again confronted with a disrespectful protest by a man whose government has lost his respect.
I have heard the critique that someone as rich and successful as him has no business complaining. In fact, his fame and money put him in the perfect position to call our country to account when others — those less visible and whose voices cannot be heard as loudly — are mistreated and killed. It is not just his business to protest, in some ways it is a moral imperative.
The most problematic criticism for not standing for the national anthem is that it disrespects those who fought and died for our country. The train of thought seems fairly intuitive: Soldiers fight for our country, the flag represents our country, and so to disrespect the flag is to disrespect the country and those who struggled to preserve it.
However, Kaepernick’s protest has never been about disrespecting men and women in uniform. That criticism misses this crucial point: Soldiers in every branch of the armed forces swear an oath to defend and uphold the Constitution. Our flag represents the republic. Soldiers are not defending their America. Rather, they are defending the American democratic experiment itself, in all of its forms.
They are defending freedom of expression, for all people. They are defending freedom of speech, for all people. They are defending the rights of even those that vehemently disagree with them.
Speech against the government was one of the chief types of speech the First Amendment was created to protect. Kaepernick’s protest is a fundamentally democratic exercise, hearkening back to the demonstration of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, to the civil rights marches, the anti-war protests, the suffragettes and the Boston Tea Party.
For Kaepernick, or anyone else, to make an act of protest is to exercise the very right that American soldiers of all races, ethnicities, religions and creeds have fought and died to protect since eight Minutemen were killed on Lexington Green in April, 1775.
Kaepernick’s protest rubs many people the wrong way. But what good is a protest if it does not elicit a reaction? Protest is meant to bother you, to put an issue before your eyes, ears and hearts and compel you to give it your attention. This is not about the form of protest, but rather the purpose. Concern yourself with the issue, and not the athlete.
John Roberts of Lexington is a graduate student at the University of Kentucky. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.