The invidious fuss over "taking a knee"

The act of “taking a knee” during the national anthem is said to be disrespectful to both flag and anthem. Those who do not want to acknowledge the problem of police violence use this objection to deflect the discussion away from the issue those who take a knee seek to raise, trying to make it about patriotism and proper respect. A few flaws in this logic can be pointed out.

There is nothing disrespectful about taking a knee. Indeed it is often used as a mark of respect. Known in some circles as genuflecting, the act is used to indicate reverence for Christ, said in some religious traditions (including Roman Catholicism) as being present on the altar in the form of the consecrated host. Hence Catholics were traditionally taught to genuflect before the altar when they pass by it in a church. In some other contexts, taking a knee indicates respect, as when an honor guard presents the flag to bereaved relatives at a military funeral. In fact, the latter use of taking the knee is said to have been the inspiration for Colin Kaepernick’s use of the practice.

Coming at the outcry from a different angle, it bears noting that burning an American flag is a constitutionally protected act of free speech. That being the case, it is hard to imagine why this modest—and even potentially respectful act—earns such ire. The Vice President apparently flew halfway across the country (at taxpayers’ expense) just so that he could walk out of a football game at which some players went down on one knee during the anthem. He refused to address the issues they sought to raise but instead tried to divert the focus to a discussion of their fitness as citizens. Given that the song only became the national anthem a century ago, it is less hallowed than the flag, as symbols of U.S. patriotism go. Taking a knee during the anthem is by any measure a mild form of protest, given what the constitution allows to be done to the more revered flag.

Pence, Donald Trump, and other conservatives express their misplaced outrage out of a desire to change the narrative. Focusing the conversation on patriotism distracts from the issue: the violence the state now routinely perpetrates on communities of color and other citizens. Standing up for what is right is a long-standing and well-respected American tradition. Taking a knee is only the latest symbolic protest against inequality and injustice. That tradition of protest has a history that predates the anthem, and it is one that is deserving of our respect, indeed our reverence.

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