CHARLOTTE, N.C. ― A cell phone video filmed here last week captured two veterans facing off as police in riot gear chased protesters off the interstate, and encapsulated the fight over black “patriotism.”
North Carolina’s largest city has been on edge since a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer shot and killed 43-year-old Keith Scott on Sept. 20. Protesters flooded the city’s streets in the days after his death, demanding justice. On Thursday, demonstrators gathered outside police headquarters and shut down a major highway. Police in riot gear were trying to chase them off the road when the heated, profanity-laden exchange took place.
The video captures an altercation after a black man ― who is not in uniform but is standing with his arms folded along with the police ― pushes one of the protesters who is actively de-escalating the situation.
A second protester lashes out, accusing the black man who’s not in uniform of “trying to impress these white people.”
“You ain’t no fuckin’ hero!” the protester says. “You wanna be a hero? Take yo’ bitch ass overseas like I did!”
The man standing with the police replies that “I did too, son,” and says he spent 13 years with the Marines.
“Then you should know how the fuck we feel!” the protester replies.
The Marine fires back, questioning the veteran’s patriotism: “If you served your country, maybe you should have some.”
“My country don’t respect my kind,” the veteran responds.
The protests in Charlotte turned violent at times, with some demonstrators throwing objects at police, breaking store windows and looting. Those incidents might explain why the Marine ― whether he realized it or not ― perceived the black protesters as “unpatriotic.”
In the brief exchange, the Marine suggested that the veteran was being disloyal to his country by joining the demonstrations. The tired question of whether black protesters are “patriotic” has come up repeatedly as activists across the country take on issues of police brutality.
Disrespectful, rowdy and unpatriotic — these labels are often bestowed upon black people who stand up for their rights. Their methods are always criticized, whether they’re marching peacefully, burning flags or breaking windows in stores.
Questioning the patriotism of black protesters has deep historical roots. Shortly after Navy veteran Sammy Younge Jr. was killed for trying to use a “whites-only bathroom” in 1966, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) became the first major civil rights organization to publicly oppose the Vietnam War. The group’s argument was simple: Black men shouldn’t fight for “the desire of the United States government to guarantee free elections abroad” when black people didn’t have rights at home.
“We are in sympathy with, and support, the men in this country who are unwilling to respond to a military draft which would compel them to contribute their lives to United States aggression in Vietnam in the name of the ‘freedom’ we find so false in this country,” they wrote. “We ask, where is the draft for the freedom fight in the United States?”
Both white people and civil rights groups slammed SNCC for being “unpatriotic.”
A prominent current example of such disapproval is the criticism of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Since Kaepernick first refused to stand for the national anthem on Aug. 26, football fans and others have lashed out. One 49ers fan posted a video of himself burning the quarterback’s jersey as the national anthem played in the background, suggesting that denouncing someone like Kaepernick was the truly patriotic thing to do. Even Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said Kaepernick should leave the U.S. if he can’t respect the flag.
But black protesters are often incredibly patriotic ― just maybe not in a way that white America finds comforting. Protest has always been in America’s DNA; the founding fathers protested Great Britain and fought a war to win their freedom.
It’s worth noting that black protesters are far less violent by comparison. They know their God-given rights. They know that, quite often, the liberties given to other Americans are not afforded to them ― like when officers in the Baltimore Police Department regularly stop, frisk and arrest poor black residents without legal cause. Or when a man is shot in the street because cops think he’s got a blunt.
Many Charlotte protesters wore Kaepernick jerseys because they, like the quarterback, want to bring attention the staggering rates at which black people are killed by police. In many of those cases, the black people are unarmed, and the officers are not held accountable. The demonstrators congregated outside of the Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers, on Sunday, taking a knee as the anthem played.
When people question the patriotism of black Americans for not participating in rudimentary customs such as standing for the national anthem, or for not protesting in a way that makes them comfortable, they fail to see why some black folks aren’t very fond of America at the moment.
Black people are disproportionately unemployed, poor and killed during encounters with police. Black people have been forced into segregated neighborhoods (regardless of their household income), and black children are more likely than any other racial group to attend underfunded schools. Those same children are also more harshly disciplined and funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline.
So, yeah, some black folks are angry. They’re angry about the lack of equal opportunity and justice for all. Their allegiance is to standing up for their own community ― a point the veteran made in his argument with the Marine.
“Fuck patriotism!” the veteran yelled. “I’ll tell you what I’m patriotic about ― I’m patriotic about this black skin!”