and Protesters Should Take a Knee for the
By John W.
“Seems like in the past 15 years or so the idea
of patriotism has changed some. More polarized,
more tied to political or ideological views.
I’ve never seen patriotism or the flag connected
I see the flag more as the symbol of a nation
that allows the freedom to express those ideas.
That alone deserves my respect.”— Macy Moore,
29, 2017 "Information
all means, let’s talk about patriotism and President
Trump’s call for “respect
for our Country, Flag and National Anthem.”
time when the American flag adorns everything from
men’s boxers and women’s bikinis to beer koozies,
bandannas and advertising billboards (with little
outcry from the American public), and the National
Anthem is sung by
Pepper the Parrot
during the Puppy Bowl, this conveniently timed
outrage over disrespect for the country’s patriotic
symbols rings somewhat hollow, detracts from more
serious conversations that should be taking place
about critical policy matters of state, and further
divides the nation and ensures that “we the people”
will not present a unified front to oppose the
let’s tackle this issue of respect or lack thereof
for patriotic symbols.
As the U.S.
Supreme Court has made clear, Americans have a right
to abstain from patriotic demonstrations (West
Virginia State Board of Ed. v. Barnette, 1943)
and/or actively protest that demonstration, for
example, by raising one’s fist during the Pledge of
Allegiance (Holloman ex rel. Holloman v. Harland,
2004). These First Amendment protections also extend
to military uniforms (worn to criticize the
military) and military funeral protests (Snyder
v. Phelps, 2011).
Americans have a First Amendment right to display,
alter or destroy the U.S. flag as acts of symbolic
Street v. New York
(1969), the Supreme Court held that the government
may not punish a person for uttering words critical
of the flag, writing that “the constitutionally
guaranteed ‘freedom to be intellectually . . .
diverse or even contrary,’ and the ‘right to differ
as to things that touch the heart of the existing
order,’ encompass the freedom to express publicly
one’s opinions about our flag, including those
opinions which are defiant or contemptuous.”
case arose after Sidney Street, hearing about the
attempted murder of civil rights leader James
Meredith in Mississippi, burned a 48-star American
flag on a New York City street corner to protest
what he saw as the government’s failure to protect
Meredith. Upon being questioned about the flag,
Street responded, “Yes;
that is my flag; I burned it. If they let that
happen to Meredith, we don’t need an American flag.”
Spence v. Washington
(1974), the Court ruled that the right to display
the American flag with any mark or design upon it is
a protected act of expression. The case involved a
college student who had placed a peace symbol on a
three by five foot American flag using removable
black tape and displayed it upside down from his
Texas v. Johnson
(1989), the Court held that flag burning was
protected speech under the First Amendment. The
case arose from a demonstration near the site of the
Republican National Convention in Dallas during
which protesters marched through the streets,
chanted political slogans, staged “die-ins” in front
of several corporate offices to dramatize the
consequences of nuclear war, and burned the flag as
a means of political protest.
words, if freedom means anything, it means that
those exercising their right to protest are showing
the greatest respect for the principles on which
this nation was founded: the right to free speech
and the right to dissent. Clearly, the First
Amendment to the Constitution assures Americans of
the right to speak freely, assemble freely and
protest (petition the government for a redress of
those First Amendment activities take place in a
courtroom or a classroom, on a football field or in
front of the U.S. Supreme Court is not the issue:
what matters is that Americans have a
right—according to the spirit, if not always the
letter, of the law—to voice their concerns without
being penalized for it.
the First Amendment does more than give us a right
to criticize our country: it makes it a civic duty.
let’s not confuse patriotism (love for or devotion
to one’s country) with blind obedience to the
government’s dictates. That is the first step
towards creating an authoritarian regime.
can be patriotic and love one’s country while at the
same time disagreeing with the government or
protesting government misconduct. As journalist
Barbara Ehrenreich recognizes, “Dissent,
rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the
true duty of patriots.”
would venture to say that if you’re not speaking out
or taking a stand against government wrongdoing—if
you’re marching in lockstep with anything the
government and its agents dole out—and if you’re
prioritizing partisan politics over the principles
enshrined in the Constitution, then you’re not a
patriots care enough to take a stand, speak out,
protest and challenge the government whenever it
steps out of line.
nothing patriotic about the lengths to which
Americans have allowed the government to go in its
efforts to dismantle our constitutional republic and
shift the country into a police state.
anti-American to be anti-war or anti-police
misconduct or anti-racial discrimination, but it
is anti-American to be anti-freedom.
I have come
to realize that what many refer to as
polarization—certainly, what the government refers
to as “extremism”—is actually Americans challenging
the status quo, especially the so-called government
elite. Martin Luther King Jr. put it best when,
after being accused of extremism, responded, “The
question is not whether we will be extremists, but
what kind of extremist will you be?”
times over the years have I been criticized for
being anti-American and unpatriotic, reprimanded for
being too negative in my views of the government,
admonished to have “faith” in our leaders, and
ordered to refrain from criticizing our president
because Americans still live in the best country in
really what patriotism or loving your country is all
about? If so, then the great freedom fighters of
history would be considered unpatriotic.
Americans seem to think that faith in the government
and a positive attitude are enough to get you
through the day… that you’re not a good citizen if
you criticize the government… and that being a good
citizen means doing one thing: voting.
we face today, however, is that America requires
more than voters inclined to pay lip service to a
false sense of patriotism. It requires doers—a
well-informed and very active group of doers—if we
are to have any chance of holding the government
accountable and maintaining our freedoms.
it was not idle rhetoric that prompted the Framers
of the Constitution to begin with the words “We the
people.” In the words of Supreme Court Chief Justice
Earl Warren, “there is an implicit assumption
[throughout the Constitution and Bill of Rights]
that we, the people, will preserve our democratic
rights by acting responsibly in our enjoyment of
ultimate responsibility for maintaining our freedoms
rests with the people.
need to stop acting as if showing “respect” for the
country, flag and national anthem is more important
than the freedoms they represent.
Listen: I served in the Army. I lived through the
Civil Rights era. I came of age during the Sixties,
when activists took to the streets to protest war
and economic and racial injustice. As a
constitutional lawyer, I defend people daily whose
civil liberties are being violated, including high
school students prohibited from wearing American
flag t-shirts to school,
allegedly out of a fear that it might be disruptive.
understand the price that must be paid for freedom.
None of the people I served with or marched with or
represented put our lives or our liberties on the
line for a piece of star-spangled cloth or a few
bars of music: we took our stands and made our
sacrifices because we believed we were fighting to
maintain our freedoms and bring about justice for
responsible citizenship means being outraged at the
loss of others’ freedoms, even when our own are not
of the Constitution knew very well that whenever and
wherever democratic governments had failed, it was
because the people had abdicated their
responsibility as guardians of freedom. They also
knew that whenever in history the people denied this
responsibility, an authoritarian regime arose which
eventually denied the people the right to govern
governments fall into two classifications: those
with a democratic form and those that are
authoritarian, ruled by an individual or some
responsibly, however, means that there are certain
responsibilities and duties without which our rights
would become meaningless. Duties of citizenship
extend beyond the act of voting, which is only the
first step in acting responsibly. Citizens must be
willing to stand and fight to protect their
freedoms. And if need be, it will entail criticizing
true patriotism in action.
means is that we can still be patriotic and love our
country while disagreeing with the government or
going to court to fight for freedom. Responsible
citizenship means being outraged at the loss of
others’ freedoms, even when our own are not directly
threatened. It also means remembering that the prime
function of any free government is to protect the
weak against the strong.
country will sometimes entail carrying a picket sign
or going to jail or taking a knee, if necessary, to
preserve liberty and challenge injustice. And it
will mean speaking up for those with whom you might
for dissent, we must remember, is a vital
characteristic of the citizens of a democratic
society. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell
Holmes said, “If there is any principle of the
Constitution that more imperatively calls for
attachment than any other, it is the principle of
free thought--not free thought for those who agree
with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
country does not mean being satisfied with the
status quo or the way government is being
administered. Government invariably, possibly
inevitably, oversteps its authority. As human beings
are not perfect, governments, because they are
constructs of human beings, will necessarily be
imperfect as well.
country, it must be emphasized, is always
strengthened by both a knowledge of history and of
the Constitution and, when need be, acting on that
knowledge. “If we have no appreciation of the past,”
Justice Warren recognized, “we can have little
understanding of the present or vision for the
problems facing our generation are numerous and are
becoming incredibly complex.
which has developed at a rapid pace, offers those in
power more invasive and awesome possibilities than
ever before. Never in American history has there
been a more pressing need to maintain the barriers
in the Constitution erected by our Founders to check
governmental power and abuse.
make clear in my book
Battlefield America: The War on the American
at a very crucial crossroads in American history. We
have to be well-informed, not only about current
events but well-versed in the basics of our rights
and duties as citizens. If not, in perceived times
of crisis, we may very well find ourselves in the
clutches of a governmental system that is alien to
everything for which America stands. And make no
mistake about it, the mass of citizens will continue
to be misinformed, and as astute political leaders
have recognized in the past, they can be easily led.
the menace to our freedoms.
falling for the distractions. Stop allowing yourself
to be fooled by propaganda and partisan politics.
Stop acting as if the only thing worth getting
outraged about is whether a bunch of
football players stand or kneel for the National
armchair patriots and start acting like foot
soldiers for the Constitution.
it’s all a game, a ruse, a dance intended to keep
you in line and marching to the government’s tune
instead of freedom’s call. In this age of spin
doctors and manipulation, those who question the
motives of government provide a necessary
counterpoint to those who would blindly follow where
politicians choose to lead.
regimes understood well how to manipulate and
maneuver. As Hermann Goering, one of Hitler’s top
military leaders, remarked during the Nuremberg
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead
is founder and president of The
His new book Battlefield
America: The War on the American People (SelectBooks,
2015) is available online at www.amazon.com.
Whitehead can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
always a simple matter to drag the people along,
whether it is a democracy, or a fascist
dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist
dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can
always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.
That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them
they are being attacked, and denounce the
pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing
the country to danger. It works the same in any