“They’re disrespecting the flag… They’re disrespecting the Anthem… They’re disrespecting the Military!”

These have been the constant refrains from many people over the past week (most of them white) in response to NFL players locking arms or taking a knee or placing a fist in the air during the National Anthem: that such things represent an attack on this country, on its servicemen and women — on America itself.

Never mind that those actually protesting have denied such things over and over and over again, both before and after every game. Such details are of little importance, especially when those details would effectively defuse any histrionics from the righteously indignant critics, and force them to actually confront the very real ugliness at hand.

This purposeful missing of the point isn’t surprising in Donald Trump’s America, since gaslighting and deflecting and feigning ignorance are his modus operandi — tactics all of which have been on display in reckless, incendiary press statements; nationalist-baiting Tweets; and “I never said anything about race” post game stupidity.

In saying that these athletes are protesting the flag or the Military or the Anthem — you are choosing to listen to your bias and not their actual words. You’re simply ignoring their repeated statements, in order to perpetuate the narrative you need to oppose them without feeling any responsibility to wrestle with the difficult issues they raise.

By creating a black and white “Traitorous NFL Player vs. America” storyline, you’re able to completely ignore the stated and repeated impetus behind Kaepernick’s initial protest (and every one that’s followed): the plea for people of color to be treated with equity by law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and our government. When the President labels these men “sons of bitches” who should be terminated — he’s only proving why their protests are valid and necessary to begin with.

The idea that there was a “better way” to do these demonstrations is a diversion and unhelpful, as there are a million ways to be an activist. Kaepernick originally leveraged his platform, influence, and visibility to declare that black lives were valuable and should be part of whatever “making America great” looks like. It’s really that simple.

The hysterical response to it all by largely white Americans, only underscores precisely why Kaepernick protested in the first place, the deeply embedded racism this country is afflicted with, and why many white people will do almost anything to avoid dealing with it. The “better way” they were looking for from these players, is one out of the spotlight, away from their entertainment — and somewhere they didn’t have to look at it or deal with it.

A piece of cloth is not sacred and a song, especially one with a suspect genesis, is not sacred. They are symbols of a freedom that those serving our country have died to give all of us and to protect for all of us. That freedom is supposed to be available to every human being who calls this county home — because they, not the flag or the anthem, are sacred. They alone are worthy of reverence and honor and respect. And the simple, brutal truth — is that since America’s inception, people of color have not received anything close to such equity. They’ve been the ones who have been “disrespected” (and this is being extremely kind).

That’s why Colin Kaepernick took a knee. It’s why players locked arms. It’s why they raised their fists in the air. They have said as much without hesitation or ambiguity. They done these things, not because they hate this country — but because they want everyone here to have the liberty the flag points to and the song suggests.

For anyone to try put words in their mouths or assign to them motives that they’ve clearly denied, or to try and shame and silence them because this all makes them uncomfortable is the very definition of privilege. It’s exactly the kind of marginalizing and disregard that made these protests necessary in the first place. To come to the defense of a piece of cloth or a song, and not to the people beneath these protests is willful sin.

This is not about an attack on a flag or an anthem or on those who’ve served this country.

You can try and make it about those things — but that really just makes it about you, what you’re willing to talk about and what you don’t want to be inconvenienced with.

I think that’s the point these players are making: America is about more than you — or at least it’s supposed to be.

John Pavlovitz

John Pavlovitz launched an online ministry to help connect people who want community, encouragement, and to grow spiritually. Individuals who want to support his work can sponsor his mission on Patreon, and help the very real pastoral missionary expand its impact in the world.