Freedom of speech shouldn’t have to be explained to the president.
Addressing an almost all-white audience on Friday, President Trump called on NFL owners to fire athletes who take a knee during the national anthem, a protest begun last year by Colin Kaepernick to highlight police killings of black Americans. Trump doubled down on his attacks throughout the weekend, insisting on Twitter that this “has nothing to do with race” and is only about calling out people who are “disrespecting our Flag & Country.”
On both counts, Trump’s claims couldn’t be further from the truth.
First of all, of course this is about race. The protest itself, led by black athletes, originated as a way to shed light on inequality in our society as perpetuated by the lack of accountability for police brutality against people of color. Trump has leapt at the opportunity to condemn black men for peacefully exercising their First Amendment right to protest, but has a problem with calling out the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who wreaked havoc throughout Charlottesville, leaving one woman dead. According to Trump, black athletes engaging in silent, peaceful protest are “disrespecting” our country, but white supremacists are “very fine people.”
Second, peaceful protest is not unpatriotic: it is exactly the opposite. The right to raise our voices, make a speech, march in a rally, or take a knee in protest — whether in front of a government building or a football field — is at the heart of what it means to live in a free country. The right of athletes, or anyone else, to protest issues concerning police violence and the lack of equity in America must be protected or we risk further eroding our democracy. It’s chilling to think that this core tenet of a free society would need to be explained to the president of the United States. But coming from a man who has slammed the independent judicial system (“so-called judges”), undermined faith in our elections by inventing mass in-person voter fraud, and called journalists “the enemy of the American People,” it is unfortunately right in line with Trump’s ongoing attack on our democratic norms.
Trump continues to find ways to divide us as a country and marginalize communities of color. Fortunately, his latest effort appears to be backfiring, as more and more athletes from the NFL and NBA join the protest and team owners speak out on behalf of their players. Trump’s attacks are unifying whole communities in opposition to his message of division and hate.
Young men of color who play sports are more than just entertainers, and they should not be penalized for speaking out peacefully against injustice. They must be allowed to have a voice. And when their voices are threatened, we have to raise our own and stand with them.