The right to dissent in civilian life is as American as apple pie or immigration. President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence need to learn a basic civics lesson about the First Amendment and free speech.
No one can command a free American citizen to salute the U.S. flag or stand with one hand placed on his or her heart during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner before sports events, or at any other time.
A citizen’s conscience belongs to the individual. Trump, Pence and National Football League team owners ought to know this, too.
The ongoing choice by a few NFL players — who kneel in silent protest of the state of U.S. race relations, the tragedy of police brutality and other societal divisions — has been well within their rights. Yet their grievances are symbolic but legitimate at a time our government responds with cheap, meaningless appeals to patriotism.
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Trump’s ignorant rants against NFL players last month, and Pence’s shallow publicity stunt at taxpayer expense in Indianapolis on Sunday, should remind everyone that our country is led by an authoritarian man for whom the patriotic value of dissent is a deep mystery.
Pence used a government plane to fly to Indianapolis for a Colts game in his home state, but he left early and with premeditated fanfare — all to take a swipe against players who decline to be bossed like plantation workers.
Naturally NFL players are elite athletes and insulated from many of the financial and social struggles facing many other Americans.
But here’s the deal: Young African-American men die more often than do young white men in confrontations with police. Yet our president plays footsie with a white nationalist political movement while declaring that those who joined protests in support of minorities in Charlottesville, Virginia, were on a par with neo-Nazis.
More infuriating is that Trump and Pence should tend more closely to the needs of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands whose U.S. territorial residents are still battered by Hurricane Maria. As of Monday more than 40 percent of Puerto Ricans lacked potable water; more than half of the island lacked power.
The Seattle Seahawks team was among those with at least one football player kneeling on the sideline this year at the start of games. Michael Bennett showed courage first by kneeling, and we wish we had singled him out sooner for praise. The same goes for Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, who was virtually alone in kneeling a year ago before games.
That Kaepernick was not offered an NFL contract to play this year has legitimate suspicions that a highly talented black athlete was shunned not on a basis of his skill. That Kaepernick now is offering to stand for the anthem if he is given a chance to play shows that authoritarian-style coercion may be working.
It may only be a gesture, but take a knee, America. We’re so much better than this.