At the Olympic Games in 1968 in Mexico City Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had won the gold and bronze medals in the 100 meter track event, raised their clenched fists during the US national anthem. Everybody understood them to be giving the Black Power salute. People said these two athletes had protested American racism in the wrong way, in public, in a foreign country, and were disrespectful of American values embodied in the flag and the national anthem. People seem to have forgotten that they were African-American Olympic medalists and they had the right to speak the truth about racism in America however and wherever and whenever they chose. In 2016, we remember Tommie Smith and John Carlos as heroes from the Mexico City games, and most people admire them, standing on the podium, their arms raised, their fists clenched, courageously using their moment of fame to speak the truth about American culture.
Now we have the Matthew Wisner article on Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem. Wisner quotes a number of people, all of whom think that Kaepernick didn’t carry out his civil disobedience in the right way. I don’t know what these people wanted Kaepernick to do instead of what he did. Wisner’s article focusses on Jack Brewer. Brewer is a former NFL star and the CEO of The Brewer Group. He says he agrees with Kaepernick’s idea, but he disagrees with how he protested. Kaepernick was not respectful enough for Brewer, not respectful enough to the assembled thousands in the stadium, not respectful enough to the flag and to the national anthem, not respectful enough to Americans.
I think of the time, in 1989, when gay men were dying from AIDS all over America, and what we needed was a fully-funded AIDS prevention program, complete with informed outreach to gay men and Haitians. We also needed a nation-wide program of free condoms. One of the principal opponents of a prevention program was the Catholic Church, and one of the leaders of the Catholic opposition to an AIDS prevention program was John Cardinal O’Connor of New York. One Sunday in December 1989, Larry Kramer and ACT-UP mounted a huge, dramatic, protest in St Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, disrupting the Cardinal’s homily, and making it difficult to go on with the Mass. People stood up all over the nave of the Cathedral and shouted out, “O’Connor, you’re killing us!” The response was electric and predictable. Almost every straight person I talked to after the protest said Larry Kramer and ACT-UP had gone “too far.” They had lost whatever goodwill the suffering of the gay community and AIDS had earned. They had, it was said, violated the sanctity of the Mass. But of course that was bullshit. Catholics have the freedom to practice their religion as they see fit, but they do not have the right to impose their religion on others, and it was a profoundly inhumane and evil act for the Catholic church to advocate for policies that would lead to increased deaths of people from AIDS.
Growing up in the South, I heard this over and over again during the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King has gone too far this time. Malcolm X has gone too far. It never seemed to be said that Bull Connor went too far.
When the fundamental rights of American citizens are at stake, there is no such thing as too far. It is tactless to think that mere manners are at stake, and it is worse to consider the potential efficacy of various acts. When fundamental rights are at stake, it is myopic to say, be polite, be respectful. The point in civil disobedience is not to convince an audience of the rightness of some argument. The whole point in doing what Colin Kaepernick did is to make clear—to dramatize the fact—that a crime is being committed. And none of the rest of us have the right to tell him how to express his truth. I think of Lt Choi, chained to the White House fence, speaking very loudly against the criminal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. There was nothing polite, nothing respectful about what Lt Choi did, chained to the fence. But in a nation whose founding document begins, When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary—it is required that someone do what Lt Choi did. He spoke the truth.
Colin Kaepernick had the right to refuse to stand during the national anthem. He says, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He’s right that this country oppresses black people and people of color. I like it that he did what he did. I don’t think I’ll stand for the anthem myself, either. Shocking conservatives feels very American to me.
Sean Strub. Body Counts: A Memoir of Activism, Sex, and Survival. New York: Scribner, 2014. eBook. The source for the information on the ACT UP demonstration at St Patrick’s Cathedral.