BLM, Politics

Oppression, The Flag, and the Quarterback Whose Aim is Untrue

The NFL “take a knee” efforts continue. On Sunday, October 15, German soccer team Hertha Berlin took a knee and asked “for an open-minded world,” hip-hop artists such as Eminem are writing songs in support of the protest, and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has filed a grievance claim against the NFL, alleging the owners colluded to keep him from being signed.

When Mr. Kaepernick first refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem, he was asked by a reporter about his actions. Mr. Kaepernick responded:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Mr. Kaepernick is sincere, but protesting the flag to protest police brutality is just throwing the ball in the wrong direction. His statement calls for a clarification of the definition of oppression by a country, and a further clarification of what the United States flag and the national anthem actually represent. This is the difference between structure and content. The structure–that is, the foundation and framework of our country–is represented by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Problems within the country are the content, and the founding documents allow us to solve these problems–albeit in piecemeal and incremental fashion–just as we have for the last 241 years. The flag and the national anthem represent the structure, not the content.

Mr. Kaepernick is correct in one part of his statement: we absolutely do need to have an objective national discussion about how to prevent wrongful police action that results in the death of a civilian. I don’t agree that the police were guilty in all the cases that have become public knowledge in recent years. I am generally pro-police, and cops face their own mortality on a regular basis. Other than soldiers, none of us knows what that is like. But there have been enough situations in which police officers have been culpable in these deaths to warrant an open, honest discussion. (One side shouting “black lives matter” and the other side shouting “blue lives matter” does not qualify as a discussion.)

Some of these cases have exposed serious problems within a police department overall. Freddie Gray, for instance, was not the first person to suffer a “rough ride” from Baltimore police. It was common practice for some officers to give rough rides to those in their custody, despite the fact that this practice violated Baltimore Police Department policy. Other lawsuits relating to this practice preceded the death of Mr. Gray. If police officers are regularly ignoring department policy, and if they are doing it over time without leadership taking firm action to stop it, that is by definition a systemic problem.

But is it “oppression”? There has been a tendency in recent years to water down definitions of certain words and then to misapply them. The word “oppression” is thrown around far too casually. The educational system is oppressive, lack of universal health care is oppressive, male egos are oppressive. There are two ways in which this is done: lowering the bar on what qualifies as oppression, or generalizing a local offense to the larger society (which is what Mr. Kaepernick did).

The problems with lowering the bar on what qualifies as oppression are that we lose perspective on what true oppression looks like; we forget that many people in the world suffer far more than we do; we keep ourselves in a state of perpetual victimhood; and we forget to be grateful for the hard-won progress that has been made in the United States on various issues over the years and decades.

The problem with generalizing a local problem to the country as a whole is that it indicts the entire national system for the actions of a few. It is sort of like saying “men are pigs” or “liberals are crazy.” It is simply inaccurate as a blanket statement, and will win resentment from those who, rightfully, don’t deserve that description.

We need a bit of perspective, and for this, we will go to the work of Freedom House, a non-governmental organization which produces an annual report entitled ‘Freedom of the World.’

Freedom House was founded in 1941. Bipartisan from the beginning, its early supporters were both Republican (Wendell Willkie) and Democrat (Eleanor Roosevelt). It was created in response to the threat of Nazism, and continued its work against totalitarianism after World War II. True to its bipartisan nature, it was an active voice against Communism, yet firmly opposed the McCarthyite reaction of the 1950s. More recently, it has criticized both Barack Obama, for leaving the United States in a weaker position globally, and Donald Trump, for espousing positions during the 2016 campaign that raised concerns his administration would disregard America’s traditional strategic global commitments to democracy and human rights.

The Freedom of the World reports contain analyses of the state of freedom in all countries and territories of the world. The Freedom House methodology scores each country on both political rights and civil liberties. They use questions grouped as follows:

The political rights questions are grouped into three subcategories: Electoral Process (3 questions), Political Pluralism and Participation (4), and Functioning of Government (3). The civil liberties questions are grouped into four subcategories: Freedom of Expression and Belief (4 questions), Associational and Organizational Rights (3), Rule of Law (4), and Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights (4).

Each country’s political status on rights and civil liberties is then rated on a scale of 1 (most free) to 7 (least free), and the country is placed into one of three categories: free, partly free, and not free. Each country also has its own narrative report, in addition to its numerical score.

In the Freedom of the World 2017 report, 46 countries have a score of 1 on both political rights and civil liberties (including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany), and 13 countries have a score of 7 on both political rights and civil liberties (including North Korea, Syria, and Saudi Arabia). But numbers are dry. To get a three-dimensional picture of what this means, here are some excerpts from the narrative reports for three countries at the bottom of the freedom barrel. (Full reports for all countries may be viewed at Freedom of the World 2017.)

In Saudi Arabia, political parties are forbidden, dissent is criminalized, and the authorities take strong action against anyone who calls for change, including Raif Badawi, a human rights activist who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam,” and Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was imprisoned for leading an anti-government demonstration, and was executed in 2016.

In North Korea, surveillance is pervasive, random arrests and detention are common, there are no known associations or organizations that are not actually created by the state, and the state maintains a system of camps for political prisoners, who suffer from torture, forced labor, starvation, and other atrocities.

In Syria–which has the worst record of all 195 countries evaluated for the 2017 report–freedom of assembly is severely restricted, the regime controls most domestic news outlets, and civilians who criticize the state face detention, torture, and death; a fact that was graphically illustrated when a military police forensic photographer defected in 2014 (three years after the uprising began in 2011) and brought 55,000 photographs that showed large-scale torture, starvation and death of prisoners.

Finally, here is the record for Cuba. It is included even though it does not have a 7/7 score (it narrowly escaped this distinction by receiving a 7/6) because in August 2016, Colin Kaepernick wore a t-shirt with an image of Fidel Castro on it to a press conference. When asked about this later, he said that he supported only the investment in education and healthcare by Castro, and not the oppression.

To this, I would ask Mr. Kaepernick: if literacy and free healthcare are so valuable, why have hundreds of thousands of Cubans left their homes to come to the United States? I believe that some people in the United States have a naive, soft-focus view of what it is to live under a totalitarian regime. They talk blithely about admiring a government-controlled healthcare system from the vantage point of living in a free country. Clearly, for many Cubans, their education and healthcare are not worth the sacrifice of individual rights and liberty.

In Cuba, all political organizing outside the Communist Party of Cuba is illegal, associations and organizations must be registered with and supervised by the government, and political dissidents are harassed, detained, physically assaulted, and imprisoned using laws such as “public disorder,” “contempt,” “disrespect for authority,” “pre-criminal dangerousness,” and “aggression.” The regime uses a form of neighborhood-watch groups, known as Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, to encourage vigilance against opposition. The groups use “acts of repudiation,” which are basically mob attacks, to intimidate political dissidents.

A note to all who are kneeling: this is what oppression by a country and its state apparatus looks like. It is primarily about the laws and policies that a government implements, and the inability of citizens to change those laws. Does the United States have oppression in its history? Yes. Do we have problems that need to be solved and work still to do? Absolutely. But nothing about the current challenges in the United States comes even close to the government-sanctioned offenses against citizens listed above.

It is the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights that prevent us from suffering as the citizens of Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Cuba, and Syria do. These inspired documents ensure that the people of the United States have the right to address any grievances we have against the government without fear of reprisal or punishment, that we can talk publicly about the issues, and that we can vote out people with whom we disagree. We the people can effect change, up to and including changes in the Constitution itself. It’s up to us.

The flag and the national anthem are symbols of this freedom. They do not represent any problems the nation has; they represent the ability of the people to solve those problems. They represent the hope that freedom brings. That is the bottom line, and that is why people get upset when the flag and the anthem are not respected. That is why Mr. Kaepernick’s aim is untrue–he is actually kneeling and refusing to honor the symbols of the very freedom that gives him the right to kneel and refuse to honor those symbols.

Another consequence of Mr. Kaepernick’s poor aim is that we are talking about his protest, and not about the issues he says he wants to discuss. Imagine if Mr. Kaepernick had decided to go on strike from football, planted himself on the steps of a police department (perhaps in Baltimore), and refused to move until we had a national conversation about police violence. That would have been a protest directly related to the topic he wishes to cover, and he wouldn’t have offended people by aiming at the basic structure (freedom) of the country. He might have been fired for refusing to work, but if this is truly bigger than football for him, is that a risk he would be willing to take? He might well have received more support from fans that way.

Speaking for myself, when I hear the national anthem and get up on my feet, I stand a little bit taller, my heart full and grateful, that I live in a country where one person can stand and others kneel, we can disagree with each other and with authorities in public and in peace, and we can improve our country through our own efforts. That is our foundation. I hope that those who do kneel, including Mr. Kaepernick, will consider it.

Filed under: BLM, Politics


Susan Lehman is a writer who has worked in politics, higher education, film and theatre. She is author of the book, Faith, Fighting and Forgiving: Life Lessons from The Walking Dead.


  1. That was the best argument I’ve read about this issue. Thanks

  2. Michael says

    I hope some NFL players and owners read this.

    The message they are sending is “down with America”. I don’t think that’s the message they actually intend to send, but that is the message being sent. I hope they come to realize this and change their messaging.

    On the other hand, if “down with America” is the message they want to send… b’bye NFL.

  3. It’s also worth noting that, on the issue of police violence, Kaepernick’s narrative is demonstrably false. While he claims that black people are routinely abused by the police in the US, this is not what the data shows. I recently wrote a very detailed analysis, using data from the PPCS (a large victimization survey conducted by the BJS that doesn’t rely on police records), which shows that police violence against black men is actually extremely rare. For instance, according to my calculations, a black man is 44 times more likely to suffer a traffic-related injury than to be injured by the police. He is about as likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by the police while unarmed. Thus, the picture of police violence painted by the best data we have is very different from what the media says about it, which I think is why so many people share Kaepernick’s belief that police brutality is pervasive.

    • Michael says

      At the level of an individual event and at the level of the larger issue, they’re getting the story wrong.

      I think the media’s reporting is irresponsible almost to the degree of inciting riots. When it comes to individual stories, there’s been a pattern of omitting information that casts a black victim in a bad light. Leaving out contextual information needed to fully understand an event. Missing key information, the story degrades to “cop acted aggressively, for no apparent reason, killing a black man”. People are understandably upset when seeing a story like that, but the trouble is, that’s only half the story. For example, remember the story about a “black Tulsa man with car trouble shot dead by white cop”, complete with video footage from a police helicopter, but with zero explanation for why there was a police helicopter on the scene. The man was juiced up on PCP, non-communicative, acting irrationally and not responding to repeated orders from a pair of armed officers. He was going for something in his car and he would not stop. The actual story was completely different from the story being told about “a man with car trouble”.

  4. I find myself unmoved by protesters who don’t care enough about their concerns to actually be inconvenienced.

    A few years ago a great many people justified pirating computer games as a form of protest against invasive digital rights management. Although I was in agreement with their concerns about drm I was unconvinced by the great and noble “sacrifice” of downloading games for free that the protesters were making and didn’t see how that “sacrifice” would convince anyone to change their minds about the issue.

    I can’t help but feel similarly with regards to the NFL players. Not standing during the National Anthem at a game you are being paid thousands of dollars to play and you would be at even if you weren’t protesting doesn’t strike me as being much of a sacrifice. If this is the extent of the efforts the players are willing to make to bring to light the issue of Law Enforcement’s relationship with the Black Community how important can this issue really be to them?

    If it’s not enough of a concern for the NFL players to do something they wouldn’t already be doing anyway why would they expect anyone else to be motivated to do anything different?

  5. Ms Lehman,

    Amen. Beautifully written and reasoned. I wish we could have a “punch a Che tattoo” day, haha, only serious. It’s possibly my advancing age that makes me more jealous of liberty and suspicious of those who would curtail liberty in the name of justice. I am in favor of just laws and we really need to work on that in the US and the wider English (and other) speaking world.

    With kindest regards,


  6. John Dickinson says

    “he is actually kneeling and refusing to honor the symbols of the very freedom that gives him the right to kneel and refuse to honor those symbols.” A despots’ statement. I’m sure Orwell would have something to say about that.

    I have long abhorred the sickly sanctimony and mawkishness of American conspicuous patriotism: flags everywhere, anthem pervasiveness, hand-on-heart more-patriot-than-thouness. There is a psychological ratchet in operation here; once a new form of public display of patriotism is invented, it becomes the new yardstick by which to measure others’ patriotism. You don’t put your hand on your heart during the anthem? Not a patriot! You don’t say “God bless America” at the end of a speech? Not a patriot!

    The flag can symbolise *anything* about the US. Vietnam. Guns. Super sizing. Science denial. Trump. Religiosity. Whatever. Not just the good stuff.

    The irony of your insistence on respect for symbols and symbolic acts, and the ratcheting of the sacredness of them, is that a protest by abstention from them becomes much more powerful.

    Plus, no matter how good a piece of music may be, if you hear it at every frickin event you’ll get bored of it. Worse; you’ll get sick of it. Unless, that is, your aesthetic tendencies are undeveloped, or perhaps are drowned by the shrill screams of the leveraged, ratcheted, unreconstructed tribalism coming from the deep seated reptilian part of our brain. I hope that those who do stand, including Susan Lehman, will consider it, and stand a little less tall.

    • Anj Borbs says

      Hey John,
      The point is the flag & anthem are a symbol of opportunity for freedom/human rights that is not otherwise available elsewhere. It’s relative as are most ideas. It’s not a guarantee of absolute change in human nature but opportunity for it.
      Are you seriously suggesting there has been no progress in human rights in the US over time or there is no availability for further progress?
      You really see no value in opportunity?
      You speak for many on their motivations but how can you truly know all their hearts & minds? Vulgarity is no measure of ignorance or insincerity but chronic pessimism sure is.
      Better declasse than nevrose!

  7. Nathan S. says


    Frankly your analysis does not refute the reality that black mean are treated more harshly than white men by police. You repeatedly explained away significant differences in self-reported rates of poor treatment by police, by saying “well the absolute difference is small so it doesn’t really matter.”

    Even though I absolutely agree with you that the fatal shooting is overblown in media, you can’t base an argument against BLM or the flag protests on the shaky grounds of small absolute differences. If black men are beaten without cause at twice the rate of white men, that is a systemic problem until proven otherwise, no matter the absolute risk.

    My main point is that there are a lot of good reasons to oppose the flag protest (as this excellent article points out) but playing the “absolute risk is low so they shouldn’t care” game is the worst way to do it.

    • Carl Sageman says

      Thanks Nathan,

      If you look at the black deaths, you will see that most deaths are black on black. You will also see that white police are less likely to shoot a black suspect than other ethnicities will shoot a black suspect (search it, the police released the data). What we need to ask is why are blacks disproportionately more likely to be involved in crime. It’s not race, it was the welfare policy for single mothers implemented back in the 60s. Look up black welfare consequences. I’m surprised we have to cover this chessnut again. It’s well studied and documented and a well respected.

      There are two separate issues that are being mixed by John Dickinson too. If people want the notional anthem gone from Football, then people need to say it. The issue is that people mix racism and the flag. They are tri separate topics.

      As for rejecting a symbol that unites people, that’s your choice. I see the flag as a symbol for uniting Americans. A simple reminder that’s a little easier on the eye, ear and tongue than “the constitution”. If somebody is going to associate the flag with racism or reject a symbol that unites Americans, do not expect me to praise them. We seem to have two groups today: those seeking to unite and those seeking to divide.

      One other commenter pointed the finger at the media. That is a finger point I agree with. The media look for sensationalism. The integrity has gone. Divisiveness along the lines of race and gender is what the newspapers promote. It sells papers and souls. If this wasn’t the case, actual facts would be at the forefront of these discussions.

      • Carl Grover says

        As typical, great synopsis, Carl. I truly dream of the day that we can honestly look at root causes, and not solely symptoms. First, the “innocent until proven guilty” premise is not afforded to officers in these cases, and when they are exonerated, the guilt is already imposed in the court of public opinion, and cannot be taken back. People would be well served by learning how to analyze all available data, not someone else’s analysis of it, for you to then consume. But, as always (yawn), it supports the narrative. Cops violating anyone unnecessarily, should lead to dismissal or conviction. If that is enhanced in minority communities, it should be addressed just the same, not correlated to anything institutional, where that can’t be effectively proven as systemic.

        Carl is unfortunately all too correct on the welfare state inducing, or aggravating, black crime, and the resulting jailing, and possibility of brutality. I care too much about all people to simply prescribe a surface-level repair (combating police brutality) of a pervasive cultural/economic deficit. We can do better than that, and when academy and media claim a symptom to be a cause, those who need the information more than anyone, are emboldened to deny the underlying disease.

        As far as sentiments towards objects and songs, it is totally subjective. However, John Dickinson, I would assert that a large portion of “our” country regard them as symbols of the positive aspects of our nation. I am not naive to think that this is absolute. It’s a shame that you do not see them positively (and basically mock those that do). Symbolism denotes loyalty. We group ourselves, small and large, and for often subconscious purposes. Basically, you seem far too intelligent to project yourself as anything but a rationalist, yet the funny thing about that in itself, is that you seem to not see the value in it for the commoners of the world (as a gifted thinker likely would). A perusal of “Bowling Alone” or “The Righteous Mind” may prove beneficial.

        I also find it noteworthy that one can easily dismiss the flag as a positive or negative symbol (as you suggest, John), and the main actor in this story uses the negative aspects as his vehicle for the protest, while also being seen wearing an obviously poor symbol of freedom, but doing so under the veil of Cuba’s education and healthcare policies. Pure comedy.

  8. Christian Washington says

    “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands…WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL”

    • Carl Grover says

      Christian, where do you feel there is marked, systemic, injustice?

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