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Cory writes: "When you protest, the same old tropes echo down the decades: This is not the time - This is not the place - It's un-American - Real patriots don't protest - You dishonor America."

Colin Kaepernick. (photo: Ed Clemente/MGN)
Colin Kaepernick. (photo: Ed Clemente/MGN)

The Kneeling Protest

By John Cory, Reader Supported News

27 September 18

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

– Let America Be America Again (1936) by Langston Hughes

hen you protest, the same old tropes echo down the decades: This is not the time – This is not the place – It’s un-American – Real patriots don’t protest – You dishonor America.

When Nike announced its partnership with Colin Kaepernick, the anti-protest citizenry became flaming protesters calling for boycotts of Nike and burning Nike products. The anti-protesters protested the protesters. Welcome to America, friend.

The Nike print ad I saw was a simple black and white photo of Colin Kaepernick with this slogan: Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

How beautifully powerful and important is that affirmation? Very.

Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

In October of 1968, three athletes mounted the medals podium in Mexico City. Two of those young men raised their fists in what became the frenzied media story of the black power salute. Forgotten in all that frenzy was the fact that all three men – Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman – wore buttons on their uniforms as a protest in violation of Olympic rules. That protest was to support the Olympic Project for Human Rights Campaign, a movement fighting racial inequality around the world.

All three men paid a steep price for their actions. None of them would ever be in the Olympics again. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were immediately expelled from the Olympic Village and sent home, where they received death threats and monitoring and interference by the FBI. They became pariahs and suffered great personal and financial loss.

Peter Norman would face criticism and exile in his native Australia. At his funeral in 2006, both Smith and Carlos were pallbearers. Over all those years, Peter Norman maintained that the proudest moment of his life was that day in Mexico City in 1968.

In 2012, the Australian government issued a formal apology to Peter Norman, and it was reported that in a speech before Parliament, an MP said that Norman’s gesture was “a moment of heroism and humility that advanced international awareness of racial inequality.”

Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

At the 45th Academy Awards Ceremony in March of 1973, Marlon Brando won the Oscar for his role in The Godfather. Appearing on his behalf, Sacheen Littlefeather spoke politely and respectfully, saying that Mr. Brando regretfully declined to accept the award because of the treatment of Native Peoples by the film and television industry and also to call attention to the happenings at Wounded Knee.

Some of the audience booed and jeered at having their beautiful night of awards for beautiful people spoiled. This was not the place for ugly politics. A lot of the audience gave her rousing applause and cheers.

Sacheen had to be protected backstage by security as people made obscene war hoops and tomahawk chop gestures and shouted threats at her. John Wayne was so angry he had to be restrained by six security guards while she was escorted to the pressroom. A short time after the Academy Awards, she was at Brando’s house and while they were visiting, someone fired several gunshots into the front door.

Her acting career came to a grinding halt. People would tell her they just couldn’t hire her for fear of having production shut down because of that Oscar thing and her politics and association with AIM. Nobody liked militant Indians.

When Jada Pinkett-Smith boycotted the 2016 Oscars over the lack of diversity in Academy nominees, she acknowledged Sacheen Littlefeather as inspiration and validation of her own protest.

Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

Humping the Big Green in 1969 was a hard walk in hell. Don’t mean nothin’ was the motto that got you through the day. It was not a good year in the Central Highlands outside Quang Ngai and Vin Loc and LZ Stinson and so many other places.

Hillbillies and Hippies slogged the paddies side by side, laughed and argued over sports teams and cars, Donut Dollies, and life back in the World; traded cans of beans and franks for peaches and pound cake, Lucky Strikes for Pall Malls and other goodies in C-Rats. The disc-shaped Hershey Bars were a unique creation in the annals of combat chow. The chocolate never seemed to melt in the heat and had the hardness of a Kevlar vest and was laughingly called “a John Wayne Bar” with the satirical advice to stuff your shirt pockets with them to deflect VC bullets.

But this wasn’t your father’s war. Everywhere you looked some grunt had drawn a peace symbol on his helmet or wore an Another Mother for Peace pendant with his dog tags. And every USO show band played We Gotta Get Out of This Place.

The FNG shook his head. “You’ll get in trouble. Serious trouble.”

Texas Jerry grinned. “What are they gonna do, send us to Nam? We’re already here.”

“They could send you to Leavenworth.”

“Well then, I guess we’ll have to live with the disappointment of not getting to die in a combat zone,” Texas Jerry said.

Career officers and lifer-NCOs up and down the line suddenly had to deal with news of a coming protest right there in the battlefield. Word had spread that back in the World there was going to be a huge anti-war Moratorium Day on October 15th across the country and hopefully around the world. It was a demonstration to end the war and to pay tribute to American lives lost in Viet Nam by wearing black armbands and marching for peace.

Some commanders said that soldiers don’t protest, period. That’s an order. Others were more flexible and willing to turn a blind eye. And still others left it up to the men in their unit to decide.

From Tra Bong to Chu Lai to Nha Trang, from the Mekong to Marble Mountain, lots of grunts and ground-pounders wore black armbands in solidarity with the Moratorium back home. Charlie Company even made Life Magazine they said and other units were photographed for other publications. Unprecedented. Unheard of.

Some of those black armbands lost limbs to booby traps and others lost hunks of flesh and muscle to shrapnel and many others lost their lives before, during, and after October 15, 1969.

Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

If you believe in something, then where you stand or kneel or sit is the right place and the right time to fight for that belief, whether it is a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. for civil rights, Mount Rushmore and Alcatraz for Native rights, a rice paddy in Viet Nam for peace, or a football arena for equal justice.

There is a line in the last stanza of that song that folks demand Colin Kaepernick stand for instead of kneeling: “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just.”

Sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

– Peace –

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