The National Anthem, Patriotism, and Protest

  • Moderator James Jelin ’16

Students gathered in Jack Magee’s Pub Wednesday night to discuss the national anthem, protest, and patriotism in the wake of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem as a way to protest the treatment of minorities in the United States. For an hour they debated what the football player’s gesture—subsequently repeated by others—says about patriotism, dissent, the values symbolized by the American flag, the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the possibility for change.

James Jelin ’16, who moderated the well-attended forum, encouraged students to speak up even if they expected their views to diverge from those held by others around them. “Disagreement is not something we should be afraid of,” he said. “We can explore it in a productive way.”

The event was part of “What Matters,” a discussion series organized by the McKeen Center for the Common Good. In response to unfolding current events, particularly controversial or divisive ones, the McKeen Center invites people together on campus to discuss them. Past conversations have focused on Syrian refugees, anonymous speech, and affirmative action. Co-sponsors of Wednesday night’s event included the Student Center for Multicultural Life and the Department of Athletics.

“We don’t necessarily want experts speaking on these topics,” explained Tom Ancona, associate director of the McKeen Center. “We want to encourage people—whether it’s a student, a staff member, a faculty member, or a coach—to come in and talk about these topics.”

Jelin began the discussion by asking for general thoughts on protesting the national anthem. He quickly followed this question with another: “Does this action make a difference?”

A member of the senior class was the first to speak. He said that while he believes Kaepernick has the constitutional right to protest, he would like to see something tangible follow the act, particularly from an influential star like the NFL quarterback. “The networks that people in power have, the wealth and prestige they have to actually change the communities they’re living in and serving—that next level of community change is what I want to see.”

During the discussion, more questions emerged from both the students and from Jelin:

  • How would we feel if someone had refused to stand for the anthem in support of a different cause, like white supremacy?
  • Are symbolic acts, such as standing for the national anthem or for the Pledge of Allegiance, acts of blind patriotism that muffle dissent and criticism?
  • Does standing for the national anthem mean you support America, or does it mean you support the American ideal?
  • Does a refusal to stand for the national anthem show disrespect for members of the armed forces?
  • Can you be patriotic and also be critical of your country? Does respect require obedience?
  • Should Kaepernick’s wealth and success preclude him from criticizing the U.S.?

After Jelin concluded the discussion, several students stayed behind to continue talking, a few of them continuing friendly conversations with peers they had disagreed with earlier.

The slideshow below includes a sample of some of the observations made by different students throughout the evening:



Eliza Graumlich ’17 contributed reporting to this article.

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