a funny thing happened on the way to the protest (or “it seems to me”)

Symbol. A visual image or word that points beyond itself indicating, signifying an idea or object, verily, a reality oft unseen, but not unknown, which allows the beholder of the symbol, truly, the believer in the reality to which it points to comprehend it and communicate it with others.

And, it seems to me, in order for a symbol to be a symbol, that is, to perform the function of pointing beyond itself to a reality, at least two people (preferably more, of course) have to behold the symbol more or less in the same way, that is, perceiving it as pointing (believing it to point) to a similar reality.

And that’s the funny thing about symbols, whether images or words. No two people, it seems to me, necessarily see the same thing in the image or mean the same thing by the word. We humans, each and all, based on our individual histories and memories, thoughts and feelings, desires and needs, philosophies and theologies, intentions and actions, beliefs and behaviors (in other words, all this and more that constitutes being human; one’s sense of self and life’s experience) are entitled to our views of an image or word and the values that we associate with it.

Therefore, it seems to me, it’s important for humans, especially when we disagree, to be able and willing to engage in conversation or dialogue (literally, dia [through or across] logue [speech or words]) to communicate our potentially manifold understandings of a symbol.

And, it seems to me, such conversation requires respect; literally, re (again or anew) spect (look or see). With respect, I can see you no longer through the lenses of my sense of self and life’s experience, but rather, having listened to you as much, if not more than I have spoken to you, I can, that is, I am able (and, I would pray, willing) to see a symbol and its attendant reality through your eyes.

All this, it seems to me, applies to our current raging and divisive protest about protest involving the symbols of the American flag and the Star-Spangled Banner.

American flag against blue sky

Person One, based on her/his sense of self and life’s experience, beholding the flag and hearing the national anthem, believing they signify American liberty and equality, stands, salutes, and sings.

Amercian flag, tattered, behind fence and barbed wire

Person Two, based on her/his sense of self and life’s experience, believing these symbols to be signs of personal and systemic denial of liberty and equality, sits or kneels, locks arms or raises a fist.

Person One criticizes Person Two for disrespecting the flag and anthem, indeed, denigrating America.

Person Two criticizes Person One for pledging allegiance to a system in which the equality of opportunity, indeed, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are oft deferred, at times, denied based on inherent human qualities of race and gender.

It seems to me that Person One and Person Two are entitled to their points of view and to behave in ways, short of violence, that reflect their perspectives.

It seems to me that if Person One and Person Two could and would dialogue they might arrive at a new place of mutual understanding.

Now, this doesn’t seem to me, for this, based on my sense of self and life’s experience, I know. Whenever I, with respect, listen to another, I, at the end of our dialogue, may not be able to say, “I agree with you”, but, and it never fails, I can say, “I understand your point of view, indeed, I understand you and, therefore, why and how you stand and sing or sit or kneel, lock arms or raise a fist.”

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my intentional protests

On Friday, September 22, 2017, President Donald Trump spoke at a Huntsville, Alabama, campaign rally, ostensibly to support U.S. Senator-appointee pro tem Luther Strange, embroiled in a tight runoff election race to succeed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Mr. Trump, already America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, at all hours freely firing off 140-character (in my view, insubstantial, thus, misfired) commentaries on matters great and varied, has fast become our national and self-styled Riffer-in-Chief known for his impromptu reflections on current events. At that rally, Mr. Trump offered this unscripted appraisal: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL[1] owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now! Out! He’s fired! He’s fired!’?”[2]

The reactions to the president’s comments have been swift and divergent. Senator Strange, surely speaking for many, said, “Our supporters are very deeply patriotic, they respect the values that the president represents and what he stood for at that rally…I think it was well received, I couldn’t agree with the president more.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and others rebuked the president’s remarks as “divisive” and reaffirmed the rights of players to exercise free speech. At a number of yesterday’s NFL games, during the playing of the national anthem, many players knelt or locked arms and, in one or two cases, remained in the locker rooms, taking the field later.

Unsurprisingly and, for me, sadly, given, I think, our now über-polarized and politicized social climate, the attending issues have been amassed and molded, that is, misshapen and shrunken to a contest between patriotism and protest. These and all matters are complex and, I believe, incapable of being confined to, verily, defined by an either-or calculus.

All this said, I offer a couple of left-field, that is, off-the-point-of-the-raging-debate observations…

Though I disagree with much of Mr. Trump’s allegations of “fake news” and though I recognize that every news account or narrative has an inherent social slant and political perspective, I protest inaccuracy in reporting. Yesterday morning, listening to NPR,[3] Weekend Edition Sunday host Lulu Garcia-Navarro, in conversation with reporter Mara Liasson, said, “Let’s talk about football…following up on (President Trump’s) remarks calling NFL athletes to be fired for protesting racism during the national anthem…”[4] No. Mr. Trump criticized the demonstrations by athletes as unpatriotic acts of disrespect for flag and country. Whether I agree or disagree with Mr. Trump (or anyone!), I desire, in this case, his point to be reported correctly.

During the Alabama rally speech, Mr. Trump also opined on the NFL’s declining popularity owing to changes in the rules to promote player safety, which lessen the physical contact desired by the players and the fans.[5] Perhaps for some, but, for me, no. My decreased attention to the NFL[6] has to do with my protest against what I believe to be the League’s less than consistent, verily, far short of just efforts to address, among a number of issues, (1) domestic violence allegations against (indeed, acts of) players and other violations of personal conduct policies, (2) player safety concerns, particularly related to longstanding and irreversible post-career physical and mental deterioration, and (3) racial inequities in team ownership and upper echelon management positions.

 

Footnotes:

[1] National Football League

[2] Last year, Colin Kaepernick, then quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand for the national anthem, saying, in part: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Kaepernick’s protest encouraged other athletes across the professional and amateur spectrums of sport to perform similar acts to illumine the disparity between our nation’s constitutional pledges of equality and characteriological practice of inequality. I wrote about Kaepernick’s protest in previous blog posts: September 3, 2016, The Star-Spangled battle? and September 30, 2016, where I stand on sitting & kneeling.

[3] National Public Radio

[4] My emphasis

[5] On this point, Mr. Trump said, in part: “…The NFL ratings are down massively…Because you know today if you hit too hard, fifteen yards (penalty)! Throw (the player) out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys (involved in) just (a) really beautiful tackle. Boom! Fifteen yards!…They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what (the players) want to do. They want to hit! It is hurting the game…”

[6] I have not watched an entire NFL game since early fall 2014, coinciding with the League’s mishandling of the domestic violence case against Ray Rice, a former Baltimore Ravens player. (See my previous blog posts: September 8, 2014, the (p)rice is wrong and September 10, 2014, relationships – reason & irrationality)

hate & violence come in all colors & causes

On Saturday, August 12, in response to the violence that beset Charlottesville, Virginia, involving clashes between white supremacist demonstrators and counter-protesters, President Donald Trump said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”[1]

Yesterday, August 27, in Berkeley, California, over a thousand demonstrators gathered at an anti-hate rally. Their principally peaceful protest was disrupted when scores of self-described anti-fa[2] anarchists, masked and adorned in black clothing, stormed the assembly. These interlopers, many, for me, excruciatingly ironically, wielding shields inscribed with the words “no hate”, physically assaulted Joey Gibson, the leader of Patriot Prayer, a conservative group that supports the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution[3] and others who could be identified as pro-Trump supporters.

I am a 65-year old African American. I was born and raised during the formal Civil Rights Era.[4] I was tutored at the knee of my Baptist maternal grandmother, Audia Mae Hoard Roberts, who seamlessly wove the Exodus story of Hebrew emancipation from Egyptian bondage with the Negro’s striving for freedom. I followed her, my maternal aunt, Evelyn Hoard Roberts, and my parents, William and Lolita Abernathy, in their involvement in the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I also am an advocate of the teachings and practices of those I revere and affectionately call the 3Ms – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Therefore, I believe in protest. Peaceful protest. I hate hate and violence. Whatever the group. Whatever the cause.

 

Footnotes:

[1] The phrase “on many sides” coupled with Mr. Trump’s then omission of referring by name to the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi, and other alt-right groups, hastened a backlash of criticism accusing him of establishing a moral equivalence between those factions and the counter-protestors. I heard and understood the president’s remarks that way (see my previous blog post, moral inequivalence, August 19).

[2] Anti-fascist

[3] Patriot Prayer, accused of being a magnet for white nationalists, though Mr. Gibson has disavowed racism and denounced white supremacy, had cancelled a free speech rally on Saturday, August 26, due to threats of violence by leftist counter-protestors.

[4] 1954-1968

this one word

thinking

I am 65 years old. In my lifetime, I have been referred to (and I have referred to myself) successively as Negro, Black, and African American. Throughout my lifetime, there’s another word, whatever my age, to which I have been referred, though never by me about me (and, here, I will not use the pseudo-polite euphemism, the n-word): nigger.

I can remember the first time I heard (or perhaps more accurately stated, I can remember the first time I recall hearing) this word. I was 13. On a crisp autumn Saturday, my St. Louis Boy Scout troop was on a 5-mile hike near the town of Hillsboro, Missouri. On a remote backcountry road, passing by a lone house, four white children standing on the porch called out, pointing, laughing, “Look at the niggers!” All of us were angry. A few of us doffed our backpacks, preparing to race toward that house and confront those mean-mouthed children. Our Scoutmaster, Willie Chapman, surely mindful of where we were and alone against whoever might be in that house, commanded, “Keep marching!” We did.

I can remember the last time I heard this word. Early September, a bit more than a year ago. I stood in the checkout line (all those well acquainted with my “indoorsman” housebound tendencies might be surprised!) of one of the local hardware stores; my cart laden with tools for some garden projects. A young man was in the adjacent line; his head swathed in a sweaty bandana, his shirtless sinewy frame draped in bib overalls, the cuffs, hanging over scruffy steel-toed boots. A construction worker, I reckoned, inspiring my instant admiration for one, far surpassing me, skilled with the use of his hands to build. Leaving the store, we crossed paths, our carts nearly colliding. He grunted, “Nigger.” Surprised, I looked at him. “Yeah,” he snarled, “that’s what I said.” As calmly as I could, I answered, “I heard you” and walked away.

Today, in Charlottesville, Virginia, violent skirmishes broke out between white nationalists staging a “Unite the Right” rally and counter-demonstrators, leading to multiple injuries and, as I write, one fatality.

I believe in the free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I also decry the hatred embraced, embodied in the principles and practices of racial supremacy. Whenever the two collide, as they have in Charlottesville, in countless incidences in the past, and doubtless in times to come, this one word, nigger, ringing in my consciousness of history and my experience, offending my every righteous sensibility, and reanimating my passion for the justice of equality summons me to stand against any and all who dishonor humanity by claiming any inherent or inherited superiority.

plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

In my blog post (September 30: where I stand on sitting & kneeling), I wrote, in part: Colin Kaepernick and others continue to protest against racial disparity and police brutality by kneeling at the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. I find it curious that some who disagree with the protesters seem…far more outraged about what they consider disrespect and denigration of our national anthem and flag than they are concerned about the long-playing and unresolved issues of racial animus in our country…

This morning, I was led by some motivation – at dawn’s light, not quite conscious to me, but perhaps, as I’ve thought through the day about that initial visceral stirring, it was, is the inspiration of deepest remembrance and resonance – to reread Martin Luther King, Jr’s., Letter from Birmingham City Jail.

Written on April 16, 1963, King, jailed for participating in civil rights protests, addressed his epistle as a lengthy rebuttal to liberal Alabama clergy who had published an open letter urging that the fight for racial integration be allowed to run its due course in the local and federal court systems and warning that the nonviolent resistance movement would incite civil unrest. In part, King wrote: You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes…

Protests against the status quo stir counter-protests. Always. So, today, 53½ years after King’s observation, anyone, even, I daresay, the casual, though not indifferent, the diffident, though honest spectator might sense some sorrow that we, as a nation, haven’t moved far enough to peer beneath the protest to pinpoint and proceed to act on the cause.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

where I stand on sitting & kneeling

Colin Kaepernick and others continue to protest against racial disparity and police brutality by kneeling at the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. I find it curious that some who disagree with the protesters seem, at least, in my hearing and perceiving, far more outraged about what they consider disrespect and denigration of our national anthem and flag than they are concerned about the long-playing and unresolved issues of racial animus in our country.

As I wrote in a previous post (September 3: The Star-Spangled battle?), yes, I understand and sympathize with those who are dismayed, angered by the actions of Kaepernick and others. Our anthem and flag are symbols. As symbols they point beyond themselves to realities so fondly experienced and deeply cherished that they sometimes defy our most earnest efforts to articulate them in any uniform fashion (e.g., our national identity, integrity, and security and, by extension, those who fought, suffered, and died to establish and preserve our nation). Thus the über-importance of these symbols as outward and visible representations of these sacred truths.

Yet I remain curious. Those who react negatively to the protesters provoke my wonderment and my disappointment. For I also understand and sympathize with the reasons for the protests. I have had more than enough experience – of mine own and of countless others, most unknown, through the testimony of history and many known, through their sharing of their personal stories – of being on the receiving, verily, the withholding end of racial bias, having been denied educational advantage, financial benefit, vocational opportunity, and, most sorrowfully, sometimes life itself – because of the color of our skin. So, where is the greater, more widespread outcry against racial disparity?

All this said, whenever I am in a public setting, say, at a sporting or civic event, and The Star-Spangled Banner is played and the Stars and Stripes displayed, I stand and place my right hand over my heart. Doing this, I express, in some part, my recognition of the veneration others accord these symbols, in more part, my admiration for my father and those who have served and do serve in the military, and, in most part, my anticipation of what America can be, but is not yet.

The Star-Spangled battle?

In recent days, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers, has refused to stand for the traditional playing of the national anthem at the start of games. He said, in part: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” (On this last point, I surmise a not-so-veiled reference to law enforcement, Kaepernick amplified his protest by donning socks depicting cartoon pigs wearing police hats.)

The response, predictably, has been largely negative. Social media is aflame denouncing Kaepernick as anti-American, anti-military, and anti-police. Fans boo him and burn his #7 football jerseys. The Santa Clara police union threatens to stop providing protection at 49er games.

Kaepernick contends that his position has been distorted, saying, in part, “…that’s (anti-American, anti-military) not the case at all…(as) men and women of the military…sacrifice their lives and put themselves in harm’s way for my…freedoms…I have the utmost respect for them.” Kaepernick also has pledged to contribute $1 million to organizations addressing concerns of racial inequity and police brutality.

Given my history and life’s experience, my theology and ethics, I respect the God-given dignity of every human being. In this, I strive to see all sides (at least, as many as I can behold and comprehend) of any issue.

Therefore…

I understand why Kaepernick has staged his protest (“staged”, I believe, is a fitting word, for, as a public and wealthy figure, he is in a position to have his voice heard and magnified above and beyond most individuals)…

I understand the irony of his protest in reference to the symbols of America’s flag and anthem, which represent our individual and collective freedoms to speak and act in accord with personal principle and opinion…

I understand the reactions of those who consider his protest disrespectful of beloved symbols and all who hold them dear and disloyal to the nation whose bestowed freedoms have given him the opportunity to gain his fortune…

I understand (verily, I am one of) those who perceive in America’s soil and soul the root and still flowering stalk of racism by which people of color are devalued as persons and disenfranchised of those “unalienable rights” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (In this realization, this, for me, reality, I oft quote the words of the late, great Poet Laureate of Harlem, Langston Hughes, who, in his elegiac poem, Let America Be America Again, bewailed an unfulfilled, yet undying dream: “O, let America be America again. The land that never has been yet and yet must be; the land where every man is free.”)…

I understand why some view some of Francis Scott Key’s anthemic lyric (originally a poem chronicling the British naval attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812) as racist, especially those words of the third verse: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.” I also understand that “hireling” referred to British soldiers and “slave”, those who escaped their captivity and fought on the side of England. Even more, I understand that Key honored the defenders of Fort McHenry who, though mainly white soldiers, included blacks, both free and escaped slaves. Still more, I understand that Key and his words were part and parcel of an era when institutional slavery was an accepted facet of American life in commercial practice and legal principle.

Therefore, I understand, I believe that words, all words composed in time and space, at a given moment for a particular purpose, including those of The Star-Spangled Banner, constantly must be read, reviewed, and reconsidered in the light of succeeding generations and from the standpoints of manifold interpretations. For through this broadly intellectual, deeply emotional, and highly spiritual endeavor, we, individually and communally, can come to a greater appreciation for the significance, even reverence for the words we stand to sing.

Therefore, I thank Colin Kaepernick for raising the issue anew by sitting down.