What Does the American Flag Mean?

The claim that taking a knee in quiet protest is a disrespect to our military men and women is a woefully misguided assertion. It’s a claim that can only be true if A) the American flag represents the military only, and B) the protesters are opposed to what the flag represents.

What is the American flag, or the national anthem? They are symbols, but of what? Are they symbols that represent only our military? Why would they be fixtures of our civil society if they only represented the military? We don’t play “Reveille” or “To the Colors” in civilian venues. Surely the American flag and anthem are representative of more than just the military. Surely they are symbols of our nation, and not just a representation of a single group within that nation.

And what is a nation? It is a sense of shared identity, but what defines that identity? Is it the geographical boundaries of the United States? No. I do not cease to be an American when I leave American soil. Is it merely our official government-recognized citizenship status? Is that what the flag and anthem represent, what men and women fought and died for – codified citizenship? Of course not. So what binds together a people who are composed of every race, creed, color, ethnicity, and religion? What makes us E pluribus unum? If there is an answer to that question then it must be in the realm of ideals – a commitment to democracy, to liberty, and to the inalienable truth that all men are created equal and thus deserve the equal protection of the laws.

From these ideals we have forged a nation and set pen to paper to turn those ideals into rights and liberties. It has not been a perfect process, and we kept those rights and liberties limited to mostly white men for a long time. Yet, every successive generation of Americans have chipped away at those limitations, pursuing constantly the ideal of liberty for all. Every generation had heroes who laid down their sacrifice upon the altar of freedom in order to preserve and further extend that liberty. This liberty, these ideals, they are what the flag and the anthem represent.

It was not disdain or disrespect that motivated Colin Kapernick’s kneeling protest. It was his conviction that the promise of these ideals was suffocating under the weight of persistent racial inequality in America. That racial inequality, to Kapernick, was a betrayal of the most fundamental ideal that we share as Americans – that all people are created equal and deserve equal treatment in the law. The protest is not about these players dishonoring the sacrifice of our nation’s heroes; it’s about asking the rest of Americans to live up to the ideals for which those heroes made those immeasurable sacrifices.

Critics of the protest say that it’s the wrong time and place for such a demonstration. That appeal is nothing new. From a Birmingham jail in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” Legal segregation in America may no longer exist, but racial discrimination persists nonetheless. It persists even in the institutions charged with enforcing and adjudicating the law, and in ways that are baked into the system rather than merely the actions of a few rogue elements. Acknowledging that is not hating cops, and it’s not claiming that all police officers discriminate based on race. Protesting that is not hating America, or disrespecting the military. The military does not own patriotism, and there are other non-military expressions of patriotism. Asking your country to be better, to honor the sacrifice of so many by making sure we live up to the ideals for which that sacrifice was given, that is patriotic, too. I would not trade one such patriot for a dozen who would wrap themselves in the flag while simultaneously attempting to deny others the rights and liberties which the flag represents.

King’s point in 1963 still holds true: for those who have never been the object of this racial discrimination, there will never be a right time, or place, to protest that social disease. Especially if that protest manages to disrupt the holy shrines of entertainment which we build to amuse ourselves.