I stand at the presentation of the flag and the national anthem. I also stand for the principle that you don’t have to stand; I stand for the idea that symbolic speech is the most protected speech and should be safeguarded as one of our democracy’s highest ideals.
The idea that not standing for the flag, speaking against the government or not standing for the presentation of the national anthem is unpatriotic. It is inconsistent with the America of our lore, legend, history and Constitution. This country was founded at a time when it was criminal, punishable by death, to criticize the crown, the government, the King.
We wrote a Constitution and emboldened it with a Bill of Rights to strengthen the idea that, forever, we would have the right to criticize government. Forever we would have the right to express ourselves no matter how unpopular our view with the majority. The American view is that all voices have value; even if unpopular, all views deserve voice. The First Amendment was written for people with whom we don’t agree.
This should go without saying, but clearly it does not. The First Amendment, which protects speech, assembly, religion and the right to petition our government, would not be necessary if we all agreed on the ideas that capture our collective consciousness. It would not be necessary if we were monolithic in religions. It would not be necessary if there were no reason to petition the government.
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The protections In the U.S Constitution are not written for majority thought or practice. They are written to protect the minority view. Whether that be kneeling as a form of protest as the flag is presented or taking part in a religion practiced by a sincere few.
If we allow these freedoms to be taken away, we will wake up in the world that American’s Founding Fathers rebelled against in 1776. A world with one religion and a single voice, without the right to disagree; a world that completely suppresses minority opinion. Being able to kneel in protest, raise a fist in defiance of inequality or sit at the front of the bus when standing in the back was required express a founding principle of this country. Expression is as important to our pursuit of a more-perfect union as every other part of our civil and constitutional discourse.
I hear well-intentioned people saying that kneeling during the national anthem is not the way you protest. However, protest and symbolic speech aren’t supposed to be comfortable or acceptable. It’s not meant to be a whisper in your ear saying everything is going to be OK. Protests aren’t meant to allow you to ease pass them without deliberative thought. Protest and symbolic speech is meant to jar your attention out of the stasis of your everyday existence.
Protesting is meant to make others uncomfortable.
Our Constitution enabled protest as a matter of right because history has shown us, and other parts of the world continue to show us, that dissidence that is not given voice often turns to violence.
The oath I took as a mayor was to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, as well as the laws of the state of Florida and the ordinances of the city of Miami Gardens. To my knowledge everyone who takes an oath to serve in any public capacity swears to protect the U.S. Constitution, so let us honor the document’s intent and principles and stop pretending that the First Amendment was written in pencil when we disagree with what someone says.
I stand at the presentation of the flag and the national anthem and I also stand for the principle that you don’t have to stand. I’m so American that way.
Oliver Gilbert III is mayor of Miami Gardens and president of the African American Mayors Association.