Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Protest 101

Seth DeValve is a tight end for the Cleveland Browns, and you've never heard of him.

This is because he played his college ball at Princeton, a fine Ivy League institution but not, you know, Ohio State or Alabama football-wise.

It's also because he was taken by the Browns in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, which means he's not Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham.

He is one thing, however.

He's the first white guy to kneel in prayer with his black teammates during the national anthem, in what has become a regular (and frankly eloquent) silent protest against racial injustice in America.

This landed Seth DeValve on a lot of radars all of sudden, just a few days after Michael Bennett of the Seahawks said that what the movement needed was for the white guys to join in. Now one has, and, as Bennett noted, that is significant. It makes the protests ecumenical, and therefore makes racial justice something it should have been all along: Something in which we all should be invested.

A dozen Browns, including DeValve, knelt for the anthem last night. Afterward DeValve said what convinced him to do so was what happened in Charlottesville, Va., a week or so ago, where "white nationalists" (i.e.: white supremacists) took over the streets in a torch-lit march that evoked Berlin in the late 1920s in almost every eerie detail. It was nothing America is or should be -- in fact, it was everything the Greatest Generation bled and died to vanquish in World War II -- and it likely woke up a lot of people whose sense of history had gone dormant.

And so, DeValve knelt. And then spoke about it with the eloquence you'd expect from a Princeton man.

"It saddens me that in 2017 we have to do something like that," he said. "I personally would like to say that I love this country. I love our national anthem. I'm very grateful to the men and women who have given their lives and give a lot every day to protect this country and serve this country. I want to honor them as much as I can.

"The United States is the greatest country in the world. It is because it provides opportunities to citizens that no other country does. The issue is that it doesn't provide equal opportunity to everybody. I wanted to support my African-American teammates today who wanted to take a knee."

Well said. But you know what's even sadder than having do "something" like kneeling during the anthem?

That DeValve felt the need to say he loved his country and was grateful to those who defend it.

How we came to a pass in this country where you feel compelled to explain that protest against injustice in America is not protest against America itself is something that should give all thinking humans pause. But even more bizarre is the way kneeling in an attitude of prayer for the national anthem has become synonymous for some with disrespecting "the troops."

I suppose part of it is the national veneration for those "troops," which the NFL has exploited for PR purposes and which, while entirely appropriate, sometimes veers perilously close to secular worship. But it remains a curious conflation.

All those years I stood for the anthem at sporting events, for instance, I never once thought I was honoring "the troops" by doing so. That never entered my mind. To me, standing for the anthem was simply about honoring the nation of my birth.

Now, however, I hear more and more of the "they're disrespecting the troops" refrain. And more of the "they hate America" refrain. And more of refrains that accuse the  African-American protestors of being ingrates, because, after all, they're allowed to play football for a living.

There is a steaming pile of thinly-veiled racism in that refrain. There is a whole lot of nonsense in all of them. And they all miss the point by miles and miles.

Which is, you can hate certain things about America without hating America.

A simple and obvious concept. But not simple and obvious enough for some, apparently.      

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