The Right to Protest

Dear friends,

I don’t know if you follow sports enough to catch the uproar over Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality.  Kaepernick is a football quarterback playing for the San Francisco Forty Niners.  He’s not great but he generates attention because he began his career so quickly and dramatically.  He’s young and earnest and a little impulsive –like  many young people.

During the playing of the National Anthem, Kaepernick continued to kneel while his teammates stood at attention.  He did so quietly, with little fanfare.  To me, this gesture did not seem very confrontational but the press made a big deal of it..  Gradually, others have either followed his example or tried other ways to stand for the rights of young Black men, like linking arms or raising their right fists the way that Tommy Smith did in the 1968 Olympics.  Stephen Ross, the billionaire owner of the Miami Dolphins, among an increasing group of people across American, have joined in common cause with the protesters.

But the general reaction to Kkaepernick’s protest has been negative.  Throughout the country, innumerable politicians, business owners and countless others have offered their often heated objections to Kaepernick’s gesture. The public conversation has not focused on police brutality or equal rights.  It has focused, instead, on Kaepernick’s right to protest versus the “disrespect” he has shown to a patriotic American ritual, the National Anthem.  The challenge to his right has been stunning to me, considering all of the abusive, massively disrespectful behavior we see in local, state, and national politics.  Compare Kaepernick’s behavior to Trump and the outrageous, fact-free Birther challenge to Barak Obama’s presidential legitimacy.  And this is but one sign of disrespect to the dignity of our highest office.  Why should Kaepernick be held to a different standard than the politicians.  In fact, his “protest” was relatively respectful.

On the other hand, the objections that have filled sports pages of newspapers, have, paradoxically, added great fuel to athletes’ desire to protest.  There seems to be a little movement building.  For better or worse, athletes are in the limelight and have some power to influence their fans.  Since so many of these athletes are people of color and have managed to ‘rise’ in one of the arenas most open to them, why shouldn’t they be able to use their success in the service of their values?  Business people certainly do.

New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed this issue in his September 16th column.  I found the article smug and misguided and wrote a Letter to the Editor in response.  Given the substantial response that Brooks’ article received, there seems little likelihood that mine will be published.  So I decided to send it to you in the form of a mini-blog post.  This version is slightly changed just in case The Times does publish it. I hope you like it.


David Brooks’ invocation of American civic religion, “The Uses of Patriotism,” runs much too close to the 1960’s condemnation of Vietnam War protesters.  “Love it or leave it” was the sanctimonious and divisive cry.  Why can’t we love it and protest when our country does not live to its values?  The right to protest is baked into the American tradition and the American Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of assembly, association, and speech.  The Boston Tea Party, a disrespectful protest of British taxation, helped precipitate the Revolutionary War.   In my view, we honor our nation by continuing practices that led to its formation and that guarantee the values on which it stands.

Brooks, himself, notes that “Every significant American reform movement was shaped by” self-criticism.  Protest is self-criticism in protean form.  Should we not have protested slavery when it was sanctioned by the Founding Fathers and enshrined in the Constitution?  How about the absence of women’s suffrage and discriminatory housing practices that have made it hard for every group of immigrants, from the Irish to the Latinos, to buy their own homes?  Almost all of America’s great social and economic achievements have come on the back of protest.

Every protest is met with resistance and disdain, as though they don’t fit in polite society.  I have written, myself, in favor of a more dignified and restrained presidential politics. (; and I find the current lying, name-calling, and bullying vile.  But, Brooks wants to sanitize protest too much.  He should know that self-criticism is inevitably messy and upsetting; and it does call into question the culture and values of the ruling classes.  In fact, protest, by its nature, arises outside of the halls of power.  It is the means taken by people who lack the institutional power to enact change through formal governmental channels.  In Thursday’s column, Brooks stands with those ruling classes and against the very tradition at whose shrine he asks us to worship.

We must stand with the original Tea Partiers, with the Abolitionists and the Suffragettes, with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his call for nonviolent protest, and with all who seek to highlight the need for changes in law and public behavior—even when they are irreverent.  Irreverence towards one set of “values”—standing for the National Anthem—often signals reverence for another set.  In this case, the more hallowed statement of values comes in both the right of free speech and in equal protection under the law, as it is assured by the 14th Amendment.  I believe that we should be proud of young people who speak up in this way.



4 thoughts on “The Right to Protest”

  1. Barry, kudos on sending your letter to the NYT! I am disappointed in Brooks because I am so often in agreement with him. I missed that column and I am in total agreement with you, still– 46 years after I lost a job for taking the same position (albeit not nearly as eloquently as your letter expressed it).

    After moving successfully through a series of interviews in 1970 to teach high school American history in a nearby Boston suburb, the department chair who became my sponsor in the process, walked me to the final interview with the superintendent, perfunctory we thought.

    My husband and I had just arrived in January 1970 to Massachusetts, and it was time for me to get a job again after civil rights and anti -war activism in NC–activism not so extrordinary really but enough to drive us out of the so-called ‘southern oasis’ in NC to progressive Massachusetts. My husband was labeled by Jesse Helms from his television station in Raleigh, as the “New York professor” on t.v. and in the press. We started receiving a few threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. My husband’s recommended salary increases were reversed by the Governor. (Long protest story after the events of April 4, 1968). But now in progressive Massachusetts, we were optimistic about our future. Anti-war protest was raging here in Spring, 1970. John Kerry was leading protests starting at the Lexington Green.

    In that climate I had my final interview for the advertised American history position. Then, THE question: What would I do if a student refused to salute the flag? I know I thought for a moment before responding. I suspected it was a make-or-break question. Either he hated the anti-war movement or he was testing to see if I understood the First Amendment. Which? Before answering, I was probably remembering the memos- to-all-faculty from the principal of the all-black racially segregated high school I had just left behind in Carolina, with instructions to all home room teachers to send any student with an Afro “longer than a thumbnail” to the office for disciplinary action.

    I decided not to dodge the question.

    Later that day my sponsor called me at home: “The superintendent is furious. What on earth did you say about the flag?” I explained that told him I believed that the teacher’s task is to speak to students’ hearts and minds, but you had first to try to understand and connect with the heart, so I would surely permit the protest if done quietly during the pledge. At the same time, I would expect the student to address the class and articulate the reasons, raising it as a point of conversation…and learning. This one, at least, is reading the news! Who will speak for the other side?

    So I blew it. I don’t remember my sponsor’s point of view, whether he agreed with me or not, but he lost his candidate. All bad for me and not so good for him either.

    I tried one more time in the Lexington HS and had a similar experience with the social studies department chair. And in a follow up call to my query letter with Belmont school officials I was told they had no openings for history teachers because they split the social studies classes with coaching and “we have all the coaches we need.” Period.

    Discouraged that Massachusetts seemed hardly more forward thinking than NC, I abandoned all thought of a future in public education. And by the way, so did untold numbers of my female peers who flooded into law and other professional schools, or into PhD programs. We protested by walking away. So how could I not support a respectful protest? (Years later when visiting a college in China I thought about how fortunate we are in America where we can walk away from a bad work environment. This is unlike the unlucky Chinese (c.1986, 1987, 1988) who couldn’t leave a job at a government college –and they were all state colleges– and even if you had already secured a better one if your employer didn’t release you.

    Our American values and freedoms can only be preserved when people insist on living up to the highest stand standards set by our Founders. Since I haven’t closely followed the Kaepernick situation, I don’t know if he has been called on to explain and defend his position publicly and with respect to our values. At least I haven’t heard anyone claiming anything to the contrary. This protest should be an honorable opportunity for a national conversation and I applaud you, Barry, for making that happen. Is that already happening? Maybe I’m missing it…

    (I might not take the same position about the protests last year at Yale though). Alsi, there are obscene protests against Jewish students and Israel supporters at colleges and universities across this land, led by those who either have forgotten or never understood our First Anendment freedoms. So I do not support the “rights” of protesters Willy nilly, those who do not seem to grasp what our values require of them.


    1. Bonnie, I remember those good old days, and I remember the 1950’s when McCathyism reigned. The wonderful thing about defending free speech is that we often protect it even for those whose speech we don’t like. It crosses boundaries.

      Thanks so much for your stories and for the complexity you lent to the conversation



  2. Protest is simply expressing disagreement and if peaceful, is no threat to anyone including our country, flag, or culture. Isn’t it a shame that so many people and the media get all in a twitter about a positive right we all have!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s