Other stories filed under FEATURE
To Take a Knee: The Dividing Decision
Students who knelt or displayed the American flag during the National Anthem let their voices be heard.
November 3, 2017
In the electrically charged student section, a voice rings through the speakers: “All rise for the national anthem.” The majority of students lift themselves from the bleachers. A small cluster near the front of the pack kneels solemnly, heads ducked, silent — the group of students behind them unfurls a 20-foot flag as they begin to sing.
The movement which originated at an NFL game in August one year ago has made its way across the country and now landed at home. At the varsity football game on September 29th, City High students Amelia Morrow, Mary Liebig, Bihotza James, and Kawther Rouabhi organized students to kneel during the national anthem — a protest for the Black Lives Matter movement to vouch against police brutality and systemic oppression.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Colin Kaepernick, the professional football player who began the protests, told the NFL media in August. “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.”
But most have found kneeling to be disrespectful to troops, veterans, and the country itself. Counter-protesting has risen from directly at City High all the way to the President and Vice President themselves. President Trump has frequently used Twitter as a platform to demote the protests and has encouraged boycotting the NFL.
On September 25th, President Trump tweeted, “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag, and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”
When the protesting found its way into the City High community, tensions rose, opinions flourished, and the differences in views created a gouge quite deep between the two sides.
“I think it became such a large event due to the large amount of diversity we have,” Katie Sheehan ‘18 said. “Our students come from a variety of backgrounds, causing them to hold an array of different beliefs. This causes students to develop individual opinions that may vary greatly to someone sitting in the desk next to them.”
Many students, including those who brought the flag to the game, are against the protests, believing kneeling is disrespectful.
“Why do I not want to kneel? Because I respect our country and the people who have fought for the flag,” Tanner Slauson ‘18 said. “It’s the national anthem, everybody stands for the national anthem, we always have. I just find it disrespectful towards the troops and all that, and towards our country. I think it’s a negative way to attract attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. They try to do it to get good attention, but it’s not.”
But many students believe kneeling is the right thing to do and continue to speak out on their views.
“[I’m] absolutely [kneeling], to protest racial injustice,” Lizzie Carrell ‘18 said before the game. “They get upset when we protest like we did in Ferguson, they get upset when we protest peacefully. The only time they’re satisfied is when we’re silent.”
A high school in Iowa is by no means exempt from the aftershocks of a nationwide movement. When the issue arrives directly at one’s doorstep, it may help to step back and take a wider look at what happened.
Why They Knelt
Kaepernick initially sat in his protests, but eventually began kneeling instead. Gradually, other teammates joined him, followed by members from teams across the country, and then individuals anywhere. When controversy arose, he stood firmly in his position amidst threats and urging for him to be kicked from the team.
“This is not something that I am going to run by anybody,” he said. “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
At the City football game, a small number of students protested in unity with Kaepernick and others across the country.
“I was kneeling to protest for Black Lives Matter, [and] also to exercise my right to free speech,” Veronica Abreu ‘19 said. “I think why this protest turned into such a big deal at City locally is because it kind of got blown out of proportion and it turned into an argument about what it was over. … [Kaepernick] was protesting the killings of black people and people of color, and that’s what I think it’s really about, and I am all for protesting that. I think police brutality is still a very common issue, even though the media has kind of turned off of it a little bit, but I still think it’s very apparent and we really should do something about it.”
Protesters have their own reasons for participating, as well as demonstrating their protests in different ways. Some kneel with heads bowed, some kneel and still put their hand over their heart, and some simply sit, including Destiny Gibson ‘20.
“What’s going on with police brutality and people not getting the rights they deserve is really upsetting me personally,” Gibson stated. “Just thinking that if I were to walk on the street alone that that could happen to me and I wouldn’t get the justice that I deserve, it really affects me being a young black person.”
The meaning behind the protests has been retranslated and garbled between political parties and arguments. A common counter-protest has been the use of the term “disrespectful.” On October 11th, President Trump tweeted, “It is about time that Roger Goodell of the NFL is finally demanding that all players STAND for our great National Anthem-RESPECT OUR COUNTRY”.
But disrespecting the nation isn’t the reason interviewees provided for kneeling. Therefore, a lack of awareness of other students’ intentions and beliefs was a common concern of the students.
“I feel like kneeling doesn’t disrespect anything,” Josh Millsap ‘19 said. “I’ve talked to a bunch of people … about their opinions, but people aren’t very educated about it. They think kneeling is disrespectful but you gotta educate yourself before you give your opinion … I just feel like, if I have a different opinion than you, I’m going to educate you about what I think.”
Students like Abreu and Millsap found their biggest concern was that nobody seemed willing to listen to one another.
“If students were to kneel at the football game I feel like nobody… I mean obviously there’s some people that would understand why and have their own opinions on it but some people are really uneducated about why we’re kneeling and they just do it because everybody else is,” said a student who preferred to remain anonymous.
Many people are also unaware that Colin Kaepernick met with a veteran named Nate Boyer to talk about respecting the anthem. Kaepernick made sure that his actions were perceived as respectful.
“We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates,” Boyer said in an interview with NFL.com. “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.”
Why They Stood
While students including Abreu, Gibson, and Millsap took a knee, the majority in the bleachers remained standing. When interviewed, these students’ opinions were revealed to be equally varying and passionate.
“I [stood] because I believe it’s showing respect to the soldiers and troops that have served and to our country in general,” Kate Swenning ‘19 said. “Everybody has their right to believe in what they believe. I’m showing respect to the troops because I’ve had a lot of family serve. I made the decision to stand myself but having family that has served has definitely impacted that.”
Students stood to respect the flag and the troops that have served for the country, but a common influence in these students’ opinions was the familial relation to veterans. This was true for Lance Bormann ‘18, one of the students who stood and held the 20-foot flag.
“One of the big reasons [I stood] was I had a grandpa who was drafted into Vietnam,” Bormann said. “And it wasn’t necessarily something that he wanted to do, he just respected his country and knew that he was being called on… It honestly kind of bugs him when he sees all these people that are kneeling just because he lost friends over there and that was rough on him, and he feels it’s dishonoring those people. I want to honor him and those people he lost.”
Gary Hamann, Vietnam Veteran, is one of the veterans who participates in carrying the flag during the anthem before City High games. He too feels kneeling is disrespectful and agreed with students like Bormann and Swenning.
“I think everyone is entitled with their right to do what they want. I don’t agree with it, I think it shows disrespect,” said Hamann. “We are carrying these flags. We fought for these flags. I think it shows a disrespect towards us, and partially why they’re here today they might not be here today if it wouldn’t have been for us. That’s their right to do what they feel, and if they feel that way I don’t understand why they are here.”
The largest unifier among standers was a sense of patriotism compelling them to honor the country and flag. While most had strong opinions against kneeling, nobody threatened the other side or imposed their beliefs on others, retaining a mutual respect amongst students.
“I stood because I respect the flag, and … I think it was just respecting my country,” Henry Shaffer ‘20 said. “[The protests are] for everybody to be equal, for everybody to have the same rights. As long as nobody’s getting harmed, it doesn’t really matter to me.”
The sentiment that individuals’ views had been misinterpreted by the opposite side were shared by those who stood as well.
“I wish others would realize what they are truly protesting against,” Sheehan said. “Will kneeling to our country’s anthem truly alleviate all acts of police brutality? To me, protesting our nation’s flag and respected song directly insults the men and women in military service who lay their lives on the line every day for us Americans back home. I am fortunate to know a US Airman who I view not only as a hero, but as an older sister to me, and when people take a knee, it breaks my heart to see her dedication and pride for her country ripped from her hands and tossed aside.”
Sheehan also spoke for many students when expressing the wish for unity and peace among friends and citizens.
“I hope Americans nationwide can unite and find a way to protest their opinions safely and respectfully,” Sheehan said.
A Split to be Settled
The flag and the anthem meant different things to different perspectives. To those who stood it was a symbol of the troops and those who fought for America and freedom. But for those who kneeled it stood more for freedom of speech and social justice.
“I believe the flag represents freedom,” Gibson said. “When it was the Civil War black people fought with the white people, they were fighting with each other not against so I feel like the flag represents unity between both races fighting for our country. If we fight against each other right now then what’s the point of the flag? I’m sitting down because that’s not what I’m seeing today. I’m seeing the “n”-word being used, I’m seeing things happening that shouldn’t be happening, I’m seeing police brutality, I’m seeing people not getting justice, I’m seeing people not being represented in the media, which is not okay.”
Overall both sides respected each other and those who didn’t have opinions on the matter. No student suggested intentional conflict with the other side — in fact, most expressed a desire to reconcile or develop a different solution.
“I think locking arms and standing up is a much better way to protest, to show that as America, we are in unity, even through troubled times,” Devin Rutt ‘18 said. “It’s kind of disrespectful if you sit down.”
The disagreements, tensions, and stakes caused a rift between the two groups that was hard not to notice at the game. Since time has passed, discussion of the topic has dwindled and lost some of its popularity in the media. However, the conflicting ideologies still exist and reparations may have yet to be made.
“I do support the kneeling, but over the past [month] how this has escalated into everything, what the original point was has gotten completely jumbled up,” Elias Perez ‘19 said. “Now it’s just people fighting against each other for no reason. I respect people standing but I also understand people kneeling. But what we do at City High as a community is not this. We’re supposed to be a community together and this is dividing us.”