Op-Ed

Those kneeling black athletes are the true American patriots

LeSean McCoy, of the Buffalo Bills, takes a knee during the national anthem before an NFL game in September.
LeSean McCoy, of the Buffalo Bills, takes a knee during the national anthem before an NFL game in September. Getty Images

Donald Trump dodged the draft five times during the Vietnam War, once even claiming he couldn’t serve because of bone spurs. So, when Sen. John McCain, one of the highest profile veterans in the United States, called out high-income Americans who use their privilege to avoid this patriotic duty, we knew whom he was talking about.

“One aspect of [the Vietnam War] that I will never ever continence,” said McCain, R-Arizona, “is that we drafted the lowest income-level of America and the highest income level found a doctor who would say they had a bone spur.”

When Trump says NFL players who kneel to protest police misconduct and injustice are also disrespecting the flag and military, he’s not just being a hypocrite, he is deliberately confusing the issue and deceiving the public about black patriotism.

Unlike Trump, black men step forward, enlist, and serve our country at disproportionately high rates.

Therefore, NFL players, 68 percent of whom are black, are not kneeling in protest of their family members who serve and protect this nation. They are kneeling in protest of other people in uniform who swear to serve and protect the public, but then shoot black people as if they were enemy combatants rather than fellow citizens.

Police brutality is not exclusive to the black community but it has a long-storied tradition there from the days of overseer to the modern-day officer.

Police brutality and misconduct caused the Mississippi Burning cases involving the disappearance and murder of civil rights workers in 1964; the L.A. riots in 1992 following the acquittal of police officers videotaped beating motorist Rodney King mercilessly, then laughing; the Baltimore Riots in 2015 following the in-custody death of Freddie Grey, and countless incidents from Abner Louima to “serial rapist with a badge” Daniel Holtzclaw last year.

Officers who commit these atrocities are typically given paid leave, rarely prosecuted, and even more rarely convicted even when their crimes are caught on camera. Sometimes they’re even promoted, as in the case of the officers who shot Leon Ford, always they’re defended by people who haven’t had to endure their generations of wanton abuse.

But the innocent people they’ve beaten, terrorized, and killed are American citizens, too.

In their hearts, too many other people capitulate to the cynical, false, and racist idea that you must give police latitude to kill black people, otherwise they won’t be able to effectively defend you against criminals.

To be sure, policing can be a dangerous job, and most officers are fair and sincere public servants. That’s why it’s so important that we don’t shield the fraction of cops who abuse their authority.

After generations of this brutality and injustice, it’s no wonder that, across all economic classes, only 33 percent of black people believe police use appropriate force, and half of America’s young adults have little confidence in the justice system according to the Harvard University Institute of Politics.

We can’t change this reality without facing it.

So, when privileged black millionaires risk their careers to draw attention to unchecked police brutality, they are standing up for equal treatment under the law. In a nation of laws, that is patriotic.

And when the president of the United States defends white supremacy marchers but attacks peaceful NFL players protesting injustice he’s signaling that our flag can embrace white supremacy but will not tolerate black dissent.

Such an attitude isn’t anti-black, it’s anti-freedom. Any government that would force you stand when you choose to kneel will one day force you to kneel if you ever take a stand.

These silent, peaceful protests by NFL players don’t dishonor America, quite the opposite. They honor our constitutional freedom of speech, raise awareness peacefully and call upon you to decide if you want to dodge the issue of injustice the way that Trump dodged the draft, hide contempt for wealthy black people behind the flag as he’s doing today, or credit these peaceful protestors with trying to help make a land of liberty and justice for all.

Isn’t that what our patriotic veterans of all races and genders fought for as well?

Trabian Shorters is a New York Times bestselling author, Aspen Fellow, BMe Community founder, and a Ford Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

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