When last I looked, this was still the United States of America, a country that came into being after leaders of the American colonies dissented from the policies of England, the mother country. Dissent defined us. And yet a very public act of disobeying authority deemed wrong is now being characterized by masses of not-so-well-informed people as the ultimate act of disloyalty.
Please, lend me your ear — especially those of you who have been joining the bullying squad dumping all over Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers' football player who refused to stand for the national anthem to protest police mistreatment of black people in particular. I'm talking as well to those of you who know people who are questioning his patriotism and even demanding that he relinquish his citizenship.
Dissent and protest, my fellow Americans, is in the very DNA of this country.
In case you have not looked at the Declaration of Independence in a while, it begins this way: "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." Before laying out their case against King George III, the drafters of the declaration, wrote: "[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations … evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security."
The colonists, these proto-Americans, were ticked off with King George and his way of controlling their lives from across the ocean. Their protest led to a declaration of independence, a war, the creation of the United States and the adoption of a Constitution that lays out our rules of engagement with each other, with the nation and with the world.
In case you have not looked at the First Amendment to that Constitution in a while, it says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." The government cannot control our thoughts or speech or prohibit us from protesting. If the government cannot take away these rights, then certainly we cannot do that to each other.
The American way, or so we civilized people have told ourselves for more than 200 years, is embodied in a quote attributed to Voltaire, the French philosopher: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." As the late William F. Buckley, a conservative extraordinaire, wrote: "We are so concerned to flatter the majority that we lose sight of how every often it is necessary, in order to preserve freedom for the minority, let alone for the individual, to face that majority down."
Colin Kaepernick is facing down what sounds like a majority in football stadiums and on sports talk radio and other places where even the uninformed have a right to display that deficiency. As no less an authority than President Barack Obama, a constitutional law scholar, said the other day, Mr. Kaepernick is "exercising his constitutional right to make a statement" and he "cares about some real legitimate issues that have to be talked about."
Mr. Kaepernick is the ultimate patriot, caring enough about his very flawed nation to call it out for its failings and shaming the rest of us into engaging with the issues he raises, including:
• Why is anyone obligated to demonstrate patriotism by standing for the playing of the national anthem at sporting events (unless they conveniently slip away for a potty break or the concession stand)?
• What exactly are the lyrics of the "Star-spangled Banner" celebrating? (Check out that third stanza.)
• Why are there such disparities in the way black and brown people are treated by many police officers all over the country?
Some veterans, some athletes and some hip-hop artists have risen to Mr. Kaepernick's defense and taken measures of solidarity. They get it. This is the United States of America, not some two-bit dictatorship.
The line of people affirming Mr. Kaepernick's right to protest should grow by at least one today: You, my fellow American.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.