by Ramone Romero.
It seems sometimes that in the national debate about #TakeAKnee the focus has become about “the flag” and “the anthem”, and it is often being forgotten that #TakeAKnee is a protest about the systemic injustices of law enforcement against people of color.
Yet even if that is forgotten in the news and chatter, this is still intensely about race.
The #TakeAKnee protests in the NFL (and spreading across the sports world) are offensive precisely because they began with black athletes.
The offense people are taking as disrespect to the flag, the anthem and to “America” itself comes because these are black athletes protesting.
How dare they interrupt the anthem?
How dare they not salute the flag in the way we want?
How dare they draw any amount of attention to themselves?
How dare they interrupt our holy moment of nationalistic worship?
The bottom line is that to many Americans, the lives of people of color are considered less important than flag and anthem worship. A symbol and a song are more important than black lives and the cries of people of color against injustice.
Eric Garner died being choked by the NYPD as he tried to protest, “I can’t breathe.” And just like the officers were exonerated for killing him, the same underlying message of the uproar against the #TakeAKnee protest is:
That’s right, people of color,
You can’t breathe.
You’re not allowed to.
Not until the anthem is over.
Not until you exit the stadium.
Not while you’re on national TV.
You’re not allowed to breathe,
unless it is just to sing along,
to sing the song of American freedom,
to sing along that equality has come,
that regardless of whatever you experience,
this is the land of the free.
You had better not breathe anything different than that.
Anything else you say has to wait.
If you want to breathe a protest, you do it when we say you can.
You breathe when we say you breathe.
Honestly, think about it: If white athletes were taking a knee for cancer or AIDS, to support veterans or almost anything else, this would not be objectionable. The problem is that it is black athletes, and that they are protesting for justice.
It’s not about disrespecting the flag and anthem (kneeling is the very opposite of disrespect). It’s about disrespecting the ORDER of where black people are supposed to be. It’s about them getting out of the place we think they should stay in.
It is about them breathing out of place.
The voices and cries of people of color do not matter in America as much as nationalistic worship does. Their lives and suffering do not matter as much as nationalistic worship. Justice and injustice do not matter as much as nationalistic worship.
And the truth is that this is how America has been since the beginning (and since before its beginning).
“What does July 4th mean to the slave?” asked Frederick Douglass. And what does it mean to live “in a free country” for Native Americans who lost their freedom when America overran their homelands?
The scales of justice have always been tipped against people of color in America.
“Freedom” has always been for the white majority more than for people of color.
And when people of color stand up to demand freedom, America has always resisted giving it to them with all of its might.
Attempts to turn the myth of “all men are created equal” into reality have always offended those who hold onto the spirit America was founded with.
If we really want “freedom” and “equality”, “truth” and “justice”, then we absolutely need to be set free from our idolatry of the flag, anthem, and national myths.
We can’t look to the founders, the flag, or the anthem for inspiration. We can’t look to the Declaration or the Constitution.
Because embedded in each of those things is oppression. We can’t appeal to justice in the past in order to establish justice today because the past was unjust, and our national myths whitewash it.
We have to become better than our past.
We have to become better people than the founders were.
We have to find a better glory than our “old glory” flag— a glory that values lives more than national symbols.
We have to find a better song to sing than our anthem— a song that lifts up the oppressed instead of telling them not to breathe unless they’re singing along.
Ramone Romero is an artist based in Osaka, Japan. Follow his prophetic artwork and poetry at Weeping Jeremiahs.