I have always practiced respect for the flag of the United States and the Star-Spangled Banner. I can remember being a young kid, standing in my living room, hand over my heart, while the national anthem played on television with an American flag waving on the screen. I could not have been older than four.
Through years in Scouting, I learned and practiced the rules of proper flag etiquette: when, where, and how to display the flag, fold and store the flag, and when necessary, retire the flag. I participated in Memorial Day services at the local cemetery, searching for veterans’ graves to mark with small American flags. As a trumpet player, I often played Taps during Memorial Day ceremonies.
In junior high and high school marching band, I played the Star-Spangled Banner at so many games and ceremonies that I can still play it by memory. I can’t hit the high C any more.
One of the first purchases I made after buying my home was an American flag to proudly display on appropriate holidays, in appropriate weather.
In the stands at sporting events, I have always stood during the national anthem, facing the flag with my hand or hat over my heart. I get annoyed at fans who ignore the ceremony altogether. I was proud to teach my pre-school son how to stand for the national anthem. I remember getting choked up the first time I demonstrated the right way to stand for the anthem.
I participate in running races and triathlons throughout the United States as a recreational endurance athlete. Many races have some rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner before the race start: sometimes a recording, sometimes a band, and sometimes sung by one of the race participants. I get annoyed when other racers leave their hats on, keep talking with their friends, adjust their shoes, or post one last selfie before the race begins.
I ran the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon. While preparing for the marathon, I asked the two living veterans in my family to help me with details of our family’s history of service in the Marines. Some I knew – the three brothers who served in the Marines and Navy in World War II – but I wanted to be able to honor all our family’s Marines through my marathon. In the lead-up to the race, I posted pictures and details of each of the Marines and I carried their names with me during the marathon.
I hope to participate in the Army Ten Miler in 2018 with one my family’s living veterans. If we get into the race I will honor all my family members who have served in the Army throughout our history, going back to the American Revolution and the Union Army during the Civil War. I will also honor my wife’s relatives who served in the Army. My father-in-law, whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1939, served in the U.S. Army in Italy during World War II. One of my wife’s uncles parachuted into France on D-Day. Another of her uncles served in the Army during peacetime.
At every race, I thank as many service members and Police officers guarding the course as I can. I shout thanks from across the street. I give them high fives when they’re within reach. Walking back to the train station after my last two Philadelphia marathons, I gave my race medals to officers to thank them for their support and protection.
When Colin Kaepernick began kneeling for the national anthem, I heard his message to draw attention to an American crisis: the unhalting killing of unarmed African Americans by Police officers, who are not held accountable by their superiors, by their unions, or by the courts. Although seeing someone not standing during the national anthem still rubs my skin the wrong way, I know that political commentary often is meant to do just that. It’s meant to foil our self-constructed blinders and make us think about what someone is saying and why they are saying it.
The act of taking a knee is an act of respect. When a football player is seriously injured on the field, players on both teams take a knee in quiet respect until the injured player leaves the field. Before and after games, players take a knee for the coach’s talk. In sports, as in many houses of worship, taking a knee is a gesture of attention, humility, and indeed, respect.
I first thought of taking a knee earlier this year while standing in a crowd of runners, waiting for the start of a half-marathon on a southern university campus. The school’s ROTC students provided the color guard while a runner sang the Star-Spangled Banner. The crowd of around 1,100 runners went through the range of ways of passing time as the anthem played. I wondered what would happen if I took a knee in the midst of the crowd of mostly white runners in a conservative part of a conservative state. I decided to remain standing, as always, hat over heart. I needed to think more about this – what it meant to me, what it meant to others, what it meant to the discussion about police killings of unarmed African Americans.
Why now, and why this issue? What about the humanitarian crisis and devastation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands? What about the looming threat of nuclear war with North Korea? Like many Americans, I am doing what I can on many issues. I am not ignoring those issues or the people affected. Neither am I using them as an excuse to ignore an ongoing crisis. When the crisis in the Caribbean ends (or another diverts America’s attention), unarmed African Americans will still be killed without consequences for the vast majority of their killers.
By taking a knee, I speak for myself. I take a knee because I do not accept the fact that unarmed African Americans die at the hands of Police (usually white Police) who most often go unpunished. I take a knee because I cannot be content to express my outrage on social media or to elected officials who are unable or unwilling to stop this. I take a knee, not to take away from the brave athlete who followed his conscience despite the risks, or the others who followed, but to add my voice to theirs. I take a knee because this is not only a black crisis, this is an American crisis. I take a knee because when white Police go unpunished for killing unarmed African Americans – when white elected officials and Police call protesters “a pack of rabid animals,” “ingrates,” and “degenerates” – when white fans are offended that black players are interrupting their entertainment – that is a white problem. I take a knee because I believe Dr. Martin Luther King’s words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I take a knee because I when I recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I want to believe the words, “with liberty and justice for all.”