Boy Takes a Knee: Did He Really Know What He Was Protesting?

Earlier today, a notification box popped up in the corner of my screen as it does several times a day with a breaking news story. In this case, the headline read, “ US Boy Scout Takes a Knee During Pledge of Allegiance in Protest Against Racism.”

This is not the first time a child has done this. In 2017, a six year old made the news when he also knelt during Pledge of Allegiance. After receiving a text from her child’s teacher, his mother contacted a local news station to express her frustration at the school refusing to let her son protest. Subsequently, the school system announced that students wouldn’t be required to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance and kneeling or other forms non-disruptive non-participation would be permissible with an advanced written request from the child’s parent.

I noted at the time that this child decided to do this right after several major NFL players had knelt during the Star Spangled Banner which had resulted in a lot of attention. This came in the form of a loud public outcry on one side and vehement support of the player on the other. Following this, the news reported a number of events around the country involving high school players being thrown of football teams followed by entire teams kneeling in support of those kicked off their teams.

I remember wondering what the first six year old child thought he was protesting since no where in any of the coverage did it state anything about this either from speaking with the mother or the child. In the more recent case, the ten year old child, Liam Holmes said, “What I did was took a knee against racial discrimination, which is basically [when] people are mean to other people of different colors.”

The coverage went on to say that Liam had been invited with his Cub Scout pack, to lead the pledge. It also reported that Liam’s father said he talked to Liam about kneeling beforehand, but wasn’t sure if his son would follow through. These two pieces of information made me even more confused about the event. The second statement, made it seem to me as if this was the father’s idea, not the son’s. I also couldn’t help but think that if the child or more likely, father, was so against the child being required to recite the pledge, why allow him to go since that was the sole purpose of the meeting?

Given the father’s statement it seemed to me quite possible that the child didn’t really understand why he was kneeling, and did so only because he had been told to do so. After watching a video of the event, I felt even more strongly this was the case, when seeing the child drop to a knee, then place his hand over his heart and still recite the pledge.

Each article covering the story had almost the exact same information. It did not appear as if anyone asked why this child thought that kneeling during the pledge of allegiance was a good way to protest discrimination. He also wasn’t asked where he had gotten the idea from.

After seeing the coverage on this event, I started to think more deeply about what this particular gesture communicated to me at least. I thought about my own views and assumptions about the symbolism of the flag and our national anthem. The flag, of course is a symbol for our country, as is the Star Spangled Banner, a song depicting the establishment of our nation. I remembered something I learned in school about the National Anthem about it gaining in popularity and significance during the Civil War. Many Americans who fought against slavery turned to music to express their feelings for the flag and the ideals and values it represented. This was the idea of equality for all men and women in our nation combined with the ideal of a nation unified on this position. This seemed quite the opposite of racial discrimination.

Being able to protest what we perceive to be injustices is one of the foundations of our nation. We are very vocal when we believe our free speech is being curtailed or limited in some way, sometimes to excess. The right to freedom of speech is clearly written in the First Amendment to our Constitution. The notion that all men are created equal is stated unequivocally in our Declaration. This is actually stated not as a rule of man but of God:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While it might be argued that Jefferson only believed this statement applied to white, male, land holders at the time it was written, that is not found in the wording. The message is that everyone was created equal, indicating that this is a universal truth applicable to men and women everywhere, even beyond the boundaries of our nation.

After thinking at length about this, I came to a conclusion. Protesting symbols that represent our entire nation and the ideals on which it was founded because of assumptions of what may have been intended at the time, I think is going in the wrong direction. It is saying that the basis of our nation is inequality and discrimination and worse, that the idea of equality is only applicable to specific segments of our society.

This suggests our nation has no respect for diversity and undermines the rights of those who do not fit a particular “preferred” mold. It implies that we need to scrap the beliefs and precedents that were used to establish our country and start over by establishing new ones.

This is not to say I believe our society is perfect, far from it. There is obviously still discrimination that takes place on a daily basis. There are groups that are disenfranchised. There are enormous inequalities in access to housing and medical care, pay and education among others areas. Yet protesting our entire nation is saying the strides we have made thus far are meaningless and that we don’t believe in the ideals set forth in our national songs and founding documents.

It’s not the flag or the national anthem we should be protesting. It’s that we are not holding to the ideals they represent. If a NFL star player wants to protest discrimination, it would be far more effective for him to make a specific statement about what type of discrimination he is protesting, and give examples that he has experienced or witnessed. If he is protesting police brutality against minorities, state that and find a way to protest that is related so people are able to quickly and clearly understand his message.

Protests are most effective when they provide alternative forms of action. Major sports stars kneeling during the National Anthem teaches children that it’s cool to kneel during the National Anthem. Increasing awareness of discrimination through examples, discussions, protests that occur in locations where the discrimination is ongoing, sharing how people can write their representatives or boycott a specific establishment known to turn away certain groups or races — those are the types of actions which will make a difference.

Protesting is a fundamental practice in our country which can be extremely effective in instigating change. But it is meaningless when the form of the protest fails to communicate what is being protested. Like adults, children need to understand how to mount an appropriate protest when they feel something in our society needs to change.

Imparting children with strong values and teaching them to stand up for these values is crucial for the future well-being of our nation and our world. But change will only come if children truly understand what these values mean and can identify when they are not being held to. Only then can they formulate meaningful ways to communicate that this is not okay in a way that resonates with others. Otherwise, it is simply cause for even more derision, creating new fractions in our society.

Protesting our country as a whole, which is implied when protesting one of our national symbols, is the quintessential example of throwing the baby out with the bath water. We don’t need to start over again in setting forth what is important to us as a country. We need to fulfill the truths established and set down to guide us in creating a nation that is truly inclusive and fair to all.