O Say Can You See the First Amendment?

Before a football game against the Green Bay Packers two weeks ago, Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers quarterback, refused to stand for the pre-game patriotic ceremony that is wound around the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Kaepernick later said he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” and said his stance, a quiet form of civil disobedience, was to him “bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Several professional athletes had previously protested what they saw as police brutality directed against Blacks; about 70 percent of NFL players are Black. However, Kaepernick’s actions received far more attention because he was the quarterback to a Super Bowl championship team and the 49er–Packers game was televised to a national audience.

The NFL, many of Kaepernick’s team mates, and civil rights activists across the country supported his right of protest; that right was burnished into the First Amendment. Others said he was unpatriotic, a disgrace, and a hypocrite for taking a six year $114 million contract, with $61 million guaranteed and the rest based on various bonuses. The Santa Clara police union issued a threat—its officers might not wish to work at future 49er games if the team’s management didn’t discipline Kaepernick. About 70 police are security for each of the home games.

Before the game against the San Diego Chargers this past week, Kaepernick said “The media painted this as I’m anti-American [but] that’s not the case at all.”

During the 1960s, hippies often sewed flag patches to their jeans to cover up holes. The establishment coiled up in fear that those who looked and acted different from them not only were unpatriotic but posed a threat to God, mother, and apple pie.

Today, just about every sub-group of society, from homeless teens through affluent senior citizens wear T-shirts, shorts, bandanas, and every kind of clothing imaginable with the American flag depicted on it. At the Olympics, American athletes even wrapped themselves in oversized flags. And no one complained about their disrespect.

During the late 1940s to the 1970s, thousands of persons, mostly in the arts, were subjected to Congressional hearings that were ways to ferret out those whose political beliefs did not match the two major political parties’ idea of what a “true American” should be. Businesses and numerous governmental bodies demanded workers to sign loyalty oaths. Those who had no allegiance signed; thousands who were patriots did not and stood up to the politicians and business owners, risking their own careers but knowing such oaths were unconstitutional and discriminatory.

In the 1960s, a few million Americans sat down at lunch counters or on the streets to demand that state and the federal governments adhere to the Constitution to allow all citizens the right to vote and to receive equality under the law.

In thousands of classrooms in 26 states, the day begins with an obligatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, written by a socialist in 1892 and adopted by Congress as the national pledge in 1945. Those who refuse to stand or who stand and remain silent or who don’t mouth “under God,” are exercising their First Amendment rights.

Colin Kaepernick repeated his constitutional right of dissent this past week when he knelt down during the ceremony. Next to him was safety Eric Reid who also took a knee rather than stand. Kaepernick did not rant and rave; he did not destroy property or threaten anyone’s life. He just refused to stand.

Those who condemned him for what they mistakenly saw as his anti-American action might be the ones who defame the flag and American patriotism. Here are some questions that need to be answered.

The Flag Code suggests that when the National Anthem is played, persons should stand and cover their heart with their right hand. There is no federal law that requires anyone to stand, but how many who do stand take off their baseball caps and put their right hand over their heart?

How many Americans fly tattered and weather-worn flags in front of their houses, businesses, and municipal buildings, also Flag Code violations?

How many Americans get rid of the worn-out flags, according to the Flag Code?

June 14 is Flag Day. How many American newspapers run full color, full page depictions of the flag—and tie advertising blocks to it?

During the first Gulf War in 1991, how many Americans flew the flag to show American pride, but were intolerant of minorities and those who rightfully protested that war or who didn’t put a flag in their house windows or by their mail boxes? It was during that war that thousands of businesses flew flags, believing the larger the flag, the greater the patriotism, but still treated their workers shabbily or outsourced jobs to other countries. Just how patriotic is that?

How many Americans are willing to send their youth to war, but when they return home don’t give them jobs, counseling, or adequate medical assistance? Shouldn’t that be unpatriotic?

How many Americans who flew flags after 9/11 thought it was acceptable to violate the Constitution by rallying behind a government that was engaged in overt practices to deny American citizens their First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights? How many Americans disregard the part of the First Amendment that protects freedom of religion, and attack American citizens who are Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, or any religion other than Christian?

How many Americans don’t know much about history, political science, or current events, yet screech bar-room ignorance about what they think is wrong with the country, while doing nothing to improve it?

In the last two months of a presidential election, how many Americans follow politicians who stand in front of large American flags, wear tiny metal flags on their lapels or collars, and condemn other politicians who don’t wear flags?

How patriotic is it when a millionaire politician hides money in an off-shore account to avoid paying his or her fair share of taxes?

About 94 percent of all American flags are produced in China, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. How many Americans buy flags and all kinds of merchandise made in other countries, while neglecting American-made products?

The American flag is material. It is not who we are or what we believe, nor is singing or standing for the “Star Spangled Banner,” which became the national anthem only in 1931, 155 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. The Constitution allows for divergent beliefs. Those who don’t recite the Pledge or sing the Anthem are no less of a patriot than those who are determined to make their voice the loudest in the room, while their own actions show them to be nothing more than jingoistic opportunists.

Patriotism can mean standing up—or sitting down—for social justice.

[Rosemary Brasch before retirement was a secretary, Red Cross family services national disaster specialist, and university instructor in labor studies. Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist, patriot, and professor emeritus of mass communications from Bloomsburg University, who refused to sign a loyalty oath to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. His latest book is Fracking America: Sacrificing Health and the Environment for Short-Term Economic Benefit. Read other articles by Rosemary, or visit Rosemary's website.