Unpacking Our History Of Progress Through Protest

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If you live in the United States, if you ever took a citizenship exam or a 4th grade social studies quiz, you’ll know that we are a nation founded on dissent. Americans are tea chuckers and liberty pole raisers. Rebellion courses through our veins. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs.”

So here we are. Everyone is paying attention. The frenzy over Colin Kaepernick sitting out the anthem has been think-piece’d to death and the story still has zero chill. And yet, what is Kaepernick doing besides being quintessentially American? He’s a protester and a conversation starter and a firebrand. Good. History proves that dissent is a necessary engine to drive the nation forward. Even standing up by sitting down is braided tightly into our collective identity — consider the enormous impact of the Greensboro Four.

“One of the most American things you could do ever is protest,” rapper and activist Talib Kweli tells Uproxx. “That’s a freedom that’s guaranteed to all of us as Americans. Whether you agree with anybody who’s protesting or not, you must as an American, defend their right to protest.”

Kweli hits the nail on the head — as so many veterans were quick to point out — but while history favors progressive dissenters, they’re often vilified in the moment. Just look at the old Gallup polls from May 1961, when only 22% of Americans supported the Freedom Riders. Or consider the immediate responses to the raised fists of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympic Games, which Time Magazine wrote off as a “public display of petulance.”

If those characterizations of well-considered protests seem familiar, it’s because they still are. When WNBA players wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts in July, their security detail walked off the job (and the players were fined). Meanwhile, anti-Kaepernick sentiment has been centered around him being somehow immature or choosing flawed methods — in a word, petulant. The fact that the QB’s approach is divisive is the first indication it’s also effective.

“These people who are invested in enabling white supremacy often try to kidnap the legacy of Martin Luther King and uplift people like Ben Carson or David Clarke [the Milwaukee County sheriff], as ‘respectable Negros,'” Kweli continues. “It becomes clear that it’s not about the method of protest for them, it’s about silence.”

Over the course of the past week, Kaepernick has clarified his position and it’s been cosigned (to varying degrees) by fellow athletes Steph Curry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Megan Rapinoe, among others — underlining the fact that protests and sports have an important history. The power of what Kaepernick did is found in how very jarring his choice to sit through an anthem (which athletes typically listen to while doing neck stretches) has proven to be. And while so many people have said, “Yes, but why the anthem?” the better question might be, “Could anything else have sparked this much conversation?”

When the anthem or the flag get treated as unassailable, we enter the territory of false dichotomies, the idea that two thought processes are somehow locked in a binary battle. The notion that you can’t protest — yes, even the anthem; yes, even the flag — and still be a patriot is patently absurd. Many of our brightest minds, from Alexander Hamilton to Susan B. Anthony to Martin Luther King Jr., have refused to follow the societal strictures of their day. It’s pretty natural to have a complicated relationship with your country and still love your country; just as many people have complicated relationships with their siblings and still love their siblings. To paraphrase Whitman, this nation is vast, we contain multitudes.

“It doesn’t matter whether or not the President is black,” Kweli says. “None of that matters to people who are on the ground level, to working class people, people who have to deal with the systems of oppression. That’s why we can’t focus on individual racists, or individual incidents of racism as much as we have to be focused on the system.”

Unlike football, this system doesn’t have advanced metrics. There’s no stat for conscientious dissent. If there was, a key number might be “conversations started” and that — as Kweli and others have highlighted — is what makes Kaepernick’s protest such a success. In Jefferson’s words, it has most certainly nourished a general attention to public affairs.

Now Watch: Is There a “Right” Way and a “Wrong” Way to Protest?

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