I will never forget his tears.
It’s been nearly a decade, but if I think about it, I can still remember the powerful despair of that conversation. It was the moment that I realized governmental institutions that I trust are terrifying to some of my fellow citizens.
It left me heartbroken, and it shattered my assumption that there was one American experience, especially when it came to dealing with governmental agencies like schools, police and courts.
My friend was a well-dressed professional working in Salt Lake City when he was approached by police officers. In front of his business associates, they told him he matched the description of an armed robbery suspect, and when he tried to explain where he’d been and why it couldn’t be him, not a single colleague spoke up for him.
Humiliated, scared and angry, he went with them, answered their questions and was ultimately released.
Long after that experience, however, it smoldered in him, how he had no choice, how he had no recourse, and most insulting, how he looked nothing like the man arrested for the crime. He wasn’t the right height.
His clothes didn’t match witness descriptions, and he was not in the vicinity of the robbery.
The only thing he had in common with the suspect was his skin color. Both he and the suspect were black.
For me, it was a seminal moment.
Looking into his eyes as he tried to describe how it felt to be pulled over by police, repeatedly, for no sound legal reason but because he was in the wrong neighborhood, driving the wrong car or acting in a way that "scared" someone else, I felt his anger, and I felt his fear.
I felt ashamed and helpless.
As the white daughter of a police officer, I desperately wanted to change his experience. I wanted him to feel the sense of security that I have when I’m in the presence of police.
But, I thought, what can I do to change any of that?
* * *
In August of last year, then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided not to stand with his teammates for the national anthem. A week later, he and a couple of other players took a knee during the pre-game ritual.
This was followed by outrage, questions and support.
When asked about it, Kaepernick said he was protesting police brutality, especially the deadly encounters of black men and police.
When I watched him explain, I felt my friend’s frustration and anger. I saw someone telling me that his experience was not mine, that this country treated him differently than it treated me.
“I’m not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said. “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." His protest, he said, wasn’t against the flag or the anthem, or even this country’s military personnel or institutions.
It was a stand against racially biased policies that have come under scrutiny in the past few years as unarmed black men, women and one child lost their lives in encounters with police that for the most part should have been minor issues.
The issue for African-Americans was that there didn’t seem to be justice for these incidents. If police officers were charged, they were acquitted. As one incident followed another, the discussions about systemic bias and prejudice became louder and more frenetic.
The protests were asking those of us with a different experience to pay attention; they were a plea for help; a call to solve problems that were undermining the confidence of millions of Americans in our criminal justice system.
Kaepernick wasn’t the first, and he certainly wasn’t the most radical protester. But for some reason, what he did made people the most uncomfortable.
So he was criticized, ostracized and eventually unable to earn a job on an NFL roster.
As other players have continued to kneel during the anthem, the backlash against it has increased.
This weekend was certainly a tipping point.
That’s when President Donald Trump gave his opinion on what should happen to players who refuse to stand for the national anthem.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, get that son of a (expletive) off the field?” Trump asked. “He’s fired.”
The crowd responded with chants of U-S-A! U-S-A!
I thought of my friend, of our very different experiences, and of the kind of conviction it requires to live the principles you say you believe.
* * *
My dad is a Vietnam veteran (U.S. Marine) who also served for 21 years as an Alaska state trooper. I feel like I understand, at least a little, what sacrifice and service mean. My father has been willing to lay down his life more than once for people he didn’t know in conflicts he didn’t have a hand in starting and for causes he may not have felt just.
He never told me what the flag meant to him, but he told me about the men he served with, and I met the troopers who served alongside him. His choices reflected his values, and despite our many political differences, I share those same values, including love of country, even with its imperfections.
I’ve seen more than one coffin with that flag draped over it, just as it was draped over my grandfather’s when we laid him to rest a few years ago. It is difficult for me to put into words what I feel when I see the flag, when I stand for the national anthem, and especially when I carry the flag alongside my friends as a member of Team Red, White and Blue.
It is some mixture of pride, hope and love. It’s gratitude and loyalty, and it’s a commitment to the principles on which this country was founded — equality and freedom.
I understand those principles didn’t include women, native people or slaves. Yes, I know we’ve failed to live up to those ideals almost every day since. No, I don’t think everyone has the same opportunities in America.
Still, even as I acknowledge our shortcomings, I celebrate our strengths. Right now we seem to be in the midst of struggling, growth and change.
We’re asking each other to look in a mirror; we’re attempting to walk in the shoes of another; we’re testing the principles we say we espouse with real-life challenges.
I heard Michelle Obama speak last week, and she said something I believe. She said that what makes America great is our kindness.
And to that I would add that our kindness allows us to stand up for the rights of others, even when they conflict with our own convictions.
I don’t think I could kneel during the national anthem. I know it’s just a song, just like I know the flag is just a piece of cloth. But what it represents for me is so much sacrifice that I just don’t know if I could do it.
Another thing I cannot do is criticize those who feel compelled to act differently. In fact, when I see those people on their knees, I assume they love this country, and so I wonder what’s forcing them to make such a painful choice? I’ve come to believe that’s the purpose of this protest — to ask people like me to consider how it feels to be them.
* * *
If I value freedom, then I value everyone’s freedom.
After President Trump’s comments, I listened to a wide range of predictions. I honestly hoped there would be a hundred different responses, because that’s what I love about this country.
We are individuals.
We are not patriots because we stand. We are not patriots because we don’t challenge or criticize our government. We are not patriots because we demand everyone act the same way in front of our national symbols.
We are patriots because we embrace diversity in thought and practice. We’re proud patriots on our knees protesting unjust situations that have gone unchallenged for far too long, and we’re proud patriots because we stand with our hand on our heart.
We can fight for each other without demanding we look, act or speak the same. We can be loyal to the same ideals without being robots.
Standing for the anthem doesn’t make you a patriot any more than saying you're sorry means you are remorseful for committing a wrong. It is our actions that show the world who we are and what we believe.
If we shut people up because we don’t like what they say, or even just how they say it, how can we talk about being a nation of free people? If you really want everyone on their feet for the national anthem of this country, then let’s do more to make people feel like this country hears and values them.
Because what’s most painful to me isn’t that some people kneel during the national anthem, it’s that they feel they have no other choice.