Back in high school football, when my coach wanted to make sure we were listening and not goofing off he’d tell us to “take a knee.”
If someone was badly hurt on a play and we wanted to show respect and a concern while he was attended to we would also “take a knee.”
I can’t speak to what is in each person’s heart, but for me to “take a knee” is an act of attention, of concern, and of respect. And it is in that spirit that I take a knee at tonight’s City Council meeting: out of respect for the aspiration that we be a nation “with liberty and justice for all,” with full attention that we fall short of that ideal in many ways, and with humble dedication to continue to work that the promise of the pledge may be fulfilled.
It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people – women as well as men.
-Susan B. Anthony
Since the story on this broke I’ve been getting a lot of feedback and reflecting more on the decision.
Apology for offense
As I wrote above, my intent was not to offend of dishonor those who have sacrificed for the country, whether police, military, or civilians. Though those were my intentions, it is clear that some have felt disrespected, and for that I apologize.
What is respect
When someone gets down on one knee to make a marriage proposal, is that a sign of disrespect?
The work before us
The pledge of allegiance proclaims “liberty and justice for all.” This is a noble aspiration, but one we have not yet reached. Here in Washtenaw County we are “in the bottom 8 percent for upward mobility for children in whose parents fall into the bottom 25 percent of earners nationwide. ” We are the eighth most economically segregated metropolitan region in the country. Nationally drug use rates do not vary significantly by race, but African-Americans are six times more likely to be imprisoned for drug charges than whites.
Listening to King
This experience has led me to re-read Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Here are a few key excerpts, but I encourage you to read it in full.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
Don’t Concentrate on the Finger
In Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee says “It is like a finger-, pointing a way to the moon. don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”
The practice of taking a knee is intended to be a finger pointing to the unfinished promises of American ideals and to catalyze a deeper engagement in how we can be “the land of the free” and have “liberty and justice for all.”
However, the media coverage has focused on the tactic, not the deeper issues. Rather than looking at the moon, people have focused on the finger.
As I reflect on the feedback I’ve received after taking a knee, I see no indication that anyone new is addressing the root issues of racism and economic injustice based on my actions. So, while I still feel the action was an ethical action to take, I do wonder if it was a tactically sound action.
In part my ambivalence comes from reflecting on the difference between recent symbolic acts of protest versus the direct interventions in the King-era civil rights movement. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Greensboro sit ins, the Selma voting rights activities were direct interventions at the site of oppression.
Also, my ambivalence is due to the different opportunities that I have compared to the NFL protesters. As an athlete, the players’ bodies are on-screen but their words about social issues rarely get attention, and they have little direct access to making public policy. In this setting, the decision to take a knee is their best opportunity to bring attention to their concerns. This is different from my role as an elected official where, in my own small way, I have the opportunity to use policy tools to address these concerns.
Some of the vitriolic comments I have received have accused me of being a socialist, which is amusing since the pledge itself was written by a socialist.
What is meant vs what is heard
For me, my decision to take a knee hinged on the question, “Can I take this posture in an attitude of respect for the ideals the flag represents and those who have sacrificed for those ideals.” When I reflected on what the posture of taking a knee means to me, I determined that I could, and I tried to convey that.
Despite these efforts, may people did not hear that nuance.
Effective communication depends on both the sender and receiver. Both have a duty to consider what is intended and how it is received.
It reminds me in some ways of the discussion on the Confederate flag. The argument has often been two sides entrenched in a narrative of “this is what it means to me” and not engaged in a question of what the impact of the symbol or its removal is on others.
I give Susan B. Anthony the closing words:
Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences…