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Saturday 18 November 2017
Commentary

Taking a knee

Reginald Dumas writes a weekly column for the Newsday. 

Part I

It all started in August last year with Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers of the US National Football League (NFL). But Kaepernick didn’t then take a knee; he took a seat, explaining that he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” The issue was “bigger than football, and it would be selfish (of him) to look the other way.” He was referring essentially to (mostly white) police brutality against (mostly unarmed) blacks, and was thus celebrating the Black Lives Matter protests. The next month, he took a knee.

More and more blacks — Stevie Wonder among them — have been coming out in his support. This has of course infuriated Donald Trump, a man of unusually limited sensitivity. Completely ignoring — or, one suspects, not being able to understand — the real nature of the rumblings, he told an Alabama rally of his fellow ideologues on September 22 that NFL owners should say, “when somebody disrespects our flag, ‘Get that sonofabitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired.’” (Unreality TV apprentices still populate his world, it would seem.)

Trump adds that kneeling while the national anthem is being played disrespects US servicemen and women; Kaepernick responds that, on the contrary, it shows respect for them.

As expected, the argument has surfaced that politics and sport don’t (or shouldn’t) mix. However, in my latest book Eleven Testing Years: Dissonance and Discipline, which I launched last May, I speak about the actions at the 1968 Mexico Olympics of the black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos; about the 1970 words of the irrepressible Muhammad Ali; and about the gesture at the 2016 Rio Olympics by the Ethiopian marathoner, Feyisa Lilesa, symbolising solidarity with his Oromo people, whom he claimed were being persecuted by the Ethiopian government. And I don’t even mention FIFA. Only a purist wholly detached from reality, or a hypocrite, would see a sharp division between politics and sport.

The massive irony in all this agitation is that there exists a 1943 US Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutional right of US citizens not to salute the flag or recite the pledge of allegiance. That decision reversed the court’s own 1940 ruling, when it held that a brother and sister, Jehovah’s Witnesses, had been correctly expelled from their school for daring to exercise that very right which, so far as the court was then concerned, they did not have, and therefore could not legally exercise.

The reaction to Witnesses across the USA following that 1940 decision was vicious. According to Quartz Media, Witnesses were “beaten, tarred and feathered, even kidnapped. Some were hanged, others forced to drink castor oil. Their businesses were boycotted and their houses set on fire.”

One might have thought they were really “uppity” blacks who had to be disciplined, as so many “uppity” blacks, especially in the American South, have been throughout the generations: know your place, boy. Yet none of this behaviour was inspired by race: the Witnesses were as white as their tormentors. It all had to do with imposed conformity — do as I do, say as I say. For too many “democrats,” such regimentation is, ironically, one of the cardinal elements of democracy: you are free to be fettered.

The Supreme Court’s 1943 decision also concerned children of Witnesses refusing to salute the flag or recite the pledge. This time, however, the court called in aid the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which sets out fundamental rights and freedoms.

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” the court said, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion to force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

It continued: “If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us. We think that the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power, and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the true purpose of the First Amendment … to reserve from all official control. ”

And the court used a striking phrase, on which contemporary America would do well to reflect and act: “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.” The attacks on Witnesses after its 1940 judgment must have been very much on the court’s mind.

Today, I wonder if Trump and his Trumpeteers are paying any attention to these things? Or have even heard of them? Or care?

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