This month in American protests, we’ve had a lot of talk about statues and kneeling NFL players. The media’s given us a dramatic play-by-play of both controversies, which was enough to give anybody whiplash and stop paying attention. This doesn’t do anybody any good, because it makes us lose what the original theme of the story was. It’s like we’ve gotten to the middle of a book that we’ve been distracted into not noticing is a completely different book than the one we started out with.
So here’s a quick recap just so we’re all on the same page.
What’s This Book About, Again?
Protesting During the National Anthem
Where we started out: In August 2016, NFL player Colin Kaepernick started sitting, then kneeling, for the national anthem to protest police violence against black men and women after a multitude of high profile deaths, saying that he would continue to protest until the American flag “represents what it’s supposed to represent”. This prompted outrage that he was disrespecting the flag, the anthem, and the service of veterans and police officers to the America that Kaepernick was protesting.
Where we’ve ended up: In September 2017, President Trump said that NFL players who kneel in protest during the national anthem should be fired, prompting an unprecedented wave of NFL players – including some entire teams and coaches – kneeling during the nation anthem before games in the following days, mostly as a show of NFL solidarity. A similar wave of outrage has followed for the same reasons, intensified perhaps because of the increased numbers of protestors and/or the sense that it was a publicity stunt.
Removal of Confederate Statues
Where we started out: This most recent debate started with Charlottesville’s alt-right/Nazi rally, which was formed in protest of the city’s taking down of their Robert E. Lee statue. This itself was a continuation of the attempt to remove Confederate symbols throughout the south that’s been going on at least since Bree Newsome took down the Confederate flag in South Carolina in 2015 after the murder of nine black people by a white nationalist at an AME church in Charleston.
Where we’ve ended up: As anti-Nazi furor picked up across the States, cities across the south started taking down their own Confederate statues in accelerated mode – some in the dead of night to prevent further protests on the scale of what we saw in Charlottesville. Folks have divided up into two very passionate camps: 1) Pro-statue folks argue that taking down the statues is an erasure of history, and 2) anti-statue folks argue that these men were traitors to the United States and pro-slavery racists.
But No – What’s This Book Really About?
Here’s the deal – the folks who are outraged at protesting NFL players and/or the removal of Confederate monuments have got it right. Erasing history is exactly what’s at stake. Reverence for the holiness of our nation, incidentally built on that same history anti-statue folks are trying to erase, is exactly what’s at stake.
But here’s also the deal: history is not absolute. And it’s for that exact reason that it should never be put on a pedestal out of our reach.
The word history comes from the French word histoire, which is still used in the English sense of “story” – not absolute truth. The way history (or versions of it) have been sanctified and codified into our national myth isn’t out of the ordinary – but you don’t have to look any further than the President’s slippery slope argument to see how we’ve elevated certain versions of history and put them beyond reproach – and therefore ourselves beyond reproach.
And that’s the real kicker of this debate about American identity. If we admit there’s something reproachable about this story we’ve woven into our very souls about who we are, we have to admit there’s something reproachable about ourselves. And I don’t just mean “ourselves” as a nation – I mean “ourselves” as individuals, which is a whole hell of a lot more personal and stakes-raising.
The thing is that there isn’t an “appropriate” way to protest. If you’re doing it right, protests are trying to force an existential crisis in anyone they confront. It’s extremely telling how fierce and quick the existential anger has been over the mass removal of Confederate statues. Kaepernick at least chose objects with as much existential resonance as possible.
And it’s true – the recent wave of NFL players kneeling in protest was definitely more anti-Trump’s divisive rhetoric and pro-NFL solidarity than keeping with Kaepernick’s original intent. But the spirit of the protest was still sound. They were targeted by a rhetoric that was specifically meant to divide them. They refused to let it do so. And in a divided country where people are insisting that in standing unified, they’re they ones sowing division, that’s pretty damn brave.
Erasing History and Missing the Point
The outraged folks are understanding the point better than most folks on the other side of the controversies – the problem is it’s not the point in context. It’s true: the America we know is under attack by people who want to change the America that the flag and the national anthem stand for, and by people who are intent on “erasing the history” that that America is built on. That same history simply happens to ignore, for the most part, that the Civil War isn’t even close to being done dividing us, even in the modern age.
And speaking of – there’s a reason that those Confederate equestrian statues were cast in the form of men riding into battle to defend their states’ rights to own, torture, and use their fellow men and women: the majority of them were commissioned and erected well after the Civil War during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. They’re more than monuments – they’re ghosts of the Confederacy planted to live among us, perpetually riding to defend slavery and its legacy among us in ways we can’t even recognize anymore.
Because history is over. It’s in the past. Why are people still harping on it? What right do multimillionaire NFL players have to protest inequality of any kind anyway? And anyway, we can’t change it – it was over 150 years ago – no one alive in America has ever been a slave or owned a slave – it’s time to forgive and forget.
But yet – “erasing history”? Entirely different from “forgiving and forgetting”. That we’ll protest. That we’ll cast our lots in with even Nazi sympathizers to protest. They’ll never change what happened. They’ll never replace our history. They’ll never replace us.
So – what’s this book about again?