I live in University Heights. A city with beautiful pre-war and post-war homes, a first ring suburb carved out of Warrensville Township and Cleveland Heights.
We are a multicultural city.
We have communities that peacefully live side by side, Catholics, Orthodox Jews, African-Americans, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Asian, gay, straight, among others, quite a few for a city of just over 13,000. We are better for it. We swim in the same pool, play in the same park, shop in the same stores, walk the same sidewalks, bike the same streets. We have block parties where we celebrate our common interests and desires as good neighbors. We look out for each other. We know our neighbors by name.
At the same time, many of us attend our own schools, celebrate our own holidays, participate in our own events and activities. And that’s perfectly alright. One of the things I love about University Heights is that we can be who we are, all together. We are enriched by each other’s presence.
On Monday night in the city of Cleveland, at our football stadium, at an exhibition game, the largest to date protest by a group of NFL teammates occurred on the Browns sideline during the singing of our national anthem by our own Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus. For the first time that I know, a white player took a knee next to black players on their knees. They used that moment to pray. Pray, I presume, for a more just America.
As Americans we lionize our Founding Fathers, even though they were imperfect men, many of them slaveholders, with often divergent interests and conflicting opinions. They were not of single mind or virtue. But they found common ground. They compromised, and they listened to each other. Yes, they struck from Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence the condemnation of the king for imposing the institution of slavery onto the American colonies. And Jefferson wrote these words, even as he lived, grew wealthy, and died a slaveowner.
Jefferson’s writings suggest that he would concede that he is less Founding Father than barbarous ancestor. Two centuries later, Bill Clinton would say that there was nothing wrong with America that couldn’t be fixed by what was right with America. And these are but a few threads in the tapestry that is the backdrop of Monday night’s football game.
Many people I know, most of them white, were offended by the protest. Some called for cutting these players from the team, some called for fining them, some called them scum or worse, some said they should be out of the league like Colin Kaepernick. That this was not the time or place, that this was disrespectful to our flag, to veterans, to decorum, to our country. And some of these things may be to some extent true.
But this is also true. In the United States of America, we, being we the white people, have had a bad habit of telling black people how and when and where it is not ok to protest. We simply don’t want to be distracted or disrupted by problems that don’t seem to directly affect us, and many of us resent these problems being brought up. If you are violent, you should be peaceful. If you are peaceful, but we can still see you, then you should take it somewhere else.
Mostly lost in this evaluation is the consideration of why these men were protesting in the first place. I grant that if protestors went to some designated invisible area where they could not draw attention to themselves or disrupt the everyday life and experience of their fellow citizens, their protest would be both out of sight and out of mind, and wholly ineffective.
I make a modest suggestion.
I offer this suggestion not to explain on behalf of the protestors what they mean to say. They speak for themselves.
I suggest that the performance of the national anthem at a sporting event is, in and of itself, a political statement. It is a common and conventional political statement, but a political statement all the same.
I suggest that watching men kneel and pray, making their own political counterstatement, instead of standing in commonly accepted and expected patriotic stance during the performance of our national anthem is uncomfortable. I myself stand, with hat off and hand over my heart, at every sporting event, at every performance of the anthem. I do it because I feel so moved, not because the people around me might think otherwise of me if I didn’t so stand.
But the brief discomfort of watching athletes kneel during the anthem fades quickly, and should even among those who have dwelled on it since Monday. I don’t believe that people who have watched the Browns through the last nine losing seasons, who haven’t seen a playoff win since 1994, who endured Red Right 88, the Drive, the Fumble, the Move, and so on, are really going to never watch another Browns game again over a two minute protest during one preseason football game.
But I will say this to those who have said that: that discomfort you feel, that rage you feel – what if you took those feelings and applied them positively to the pursuit of justice? What if you took those feelings and considered how people of color in this country might feel? The feeling of being the other, the strange, the different, the minority, the presumed criminal, the former slave? The feeling one gets when a person sizes you up to decide whether you are a threat or “one of the good ones.” What if you took that two minutes of discomfort you felt during the national anthem protest, and imagined how it might feel to feel that way all the time? Because, to the best of my understanding, that is how many black people feel in our country.
I don’t really know how it feels to be black in America. I have thought about it a lot. I’ve read. I’ve talked to people, and perhaps most importantly, I have listened. When I think about both the history and the present, among the things I don’t fully understand, is how there isn’t more anger. But anger consumes. And patience rewards. And the patience it takes to listen and seek understanding is crucial to moving forward, and to progress.
So, if you were offended by what you saw, I won’t tell you that you were wrong. I won’t tell you that your feelings are not valid. But I will tell you that the feelings of the men who protested on that sideline are also valid. I suggest we should all be doing more to listen to each other, consider the feelings of each other, and then seek justice together.
The greatness of our “more perfect union” is that we have the freedom to fall short, but also the freedom to be the best we can be. Our history is full of instances where we fell short, but also full of instances where we triumphed, reached new heights, and advanced. In my view, the pursuit of justice is worth the passing discomfort in order to be a better people.
What do you think?