By Dr. Mark Mussman
In my last article, I used some of Melissa Mosby’s words to describe the situation that she saw while living on the streets. One thing that she describes is a “puffy pink cloud” that people want to live in that allows them to ignore reality. As we get closer to the election, I see more and more people encouraging people on the left to stop protesting and do something for their community. It’s frustrating to me, as someone who has seen the results of protest, that people would attempt to silence anyone – let alone people who are trying to get on even footing. It’s even more frustrating that when people who are speaking the truth are called “protestors” and “activists” when those who funnel money from our public wealth are called industrious or successful businesses. Someone who feels they are above the law and shouldn’t pay taxes, is not only short-sighted, but also ignorant of the benefits and opportunities our society has created for them.
Other than the election, other events have sparked this conversation. People accused American football player Colin Kaepernick of being against the military when he didn’t stand up for the national anthem. This act of protest, which is exactly the type of protest that was written about 150 years ago by Henry David Thoreau, encourages people to think critically about what it means to be an American and what it means to live in a “free country.” At the time, Thoreau was upset by the institution of slavery and by the Mexican-American War. Through his writing, Thoreau has inspired countless others to do something – even to just speak their mind – when they witness or encounter injustice. Kaepernick’s act of civil disobedience sparked a wide discussion about what it means to be a patriot – but also what the writer of the anthem – a white person who lawfully owned people – meant when he wrote the anthem. While up to interpretation, there is a piece of the poem that isn’t sang in the anthem that references “slave(s)” and their inability to gain freedom: And where is that band who so vauntingly swore That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion, A home and a country, should leave us no more? Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave: And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave, O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
In 2003, my brother was sent to Iraq in the first wave of Marines who went to secure the oil fields for U.S. production interests. Since we were kids, my brother has been my best friend and someone who I look up to. When he joined the military in 2000, Clinton was president and no one thought we would go to war again for our own interests, so he didn’t think joining the reserves would put him in harm’s way. When he was sent, he fulfilled his duty, helped set up a police academy in Iraq on the border with Syria, during several deployments. When you have a family member in the service, so many things remind you of how much you miss them. For me, when I pulled into a gas station, I would become upset that this is why he was gone, for an unjust war to bring oil home from the Gulf. I couldn’t take it, so I got rid of my car and began to walk, ride my bike, and enjoy life more. It gave me a way to ground myself in my community – I couldn’t just jump in my car and go to another city when things were too much in Cincinnati. I was here, and this community was what I was going to make of it.
Also during that time, I sat during every national anthem. Graduations – sat. Sporting events – sat. Political events – sat. It was difficult at first as I was glared at, but every time it got easier, and I was able to create in my head, reasons why it was my right to do this. I had felt my country let me down. And beyond the war, it has continued to let me down. We could be a country of greatness, but we are too concerned with protecting the rich and pathologicising poverty. Pushing people to the margins, and denying rights and services to people who don’t fit a certain mold.
What this all boils down to in my mind is the differences in how we understand the word “freedom.” Erich Fromm, who witnessed first-hand the Nazi movement in Germany, notes that there is a difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to” and this difference, in my opinion, offers us an opportunity to critically think about what America represents to us and to the entire world. Do you think the world sees criticism of Kaepernick as more or less American than his protest? Do we provide a community that gives people the freedom to work, live, love in ways that are most beneficial to themselves, or do we only give people freedom from certain forms of overt oppression? We actively oppress people in this country through voter disenfranchisement, marriage laws, the preschool to prison pipeline, etc.; however, ultimately, we can never be truly free of our responsibilities to our families, communities, and our country. So how can we be free to reimagine what freedom looks like when the rules are so rigid?
Much of the criticism thrown at Kaepernick has related his skin color, his family dynamic, and his wealth. People have said that he is ungrateful and doesn’t understand what he is doing. Another football player criticized him for not being “black.” This brought up a good point about advocacy, and how it relates to those of us in the Black Lives Matter movement who are white. This reminds me of Anne Braden, who fought hard to desegregate Louisville, who talked about why she got into the movement. It wasn’t because of how the system treated blacks, she said, but how it treated the poor whites. She knew in her heart that if the system treated them this badly, it would be much worse for her black neighbors. She understood advocacy and exercised her freedom to create a better world for her entire community. This came at a great cost to her, after having a cross burned in her front yard and later tried for sedition, she was blacklisted from employment and ostracized from her community. Her freedom “from” was not granted for many decades, and systemically the effect of redlining certainly continues to this day.