July 4th, the National Anthem, and the Protection of Protest

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By Quentin Choy

July 4, 2021

First off, I’d like to wish a happy Independence Day to all my American readers. Since July 4th is America’s birthday and the day where barbecues, parades, and the national anthem are used to celebrate, I want to look at the national anthem and how it ties into protest, one of America’s protected rights found in its constitution.

Protest is as American as apple pie. The American revolution in itself was a form of protest against the taxation, lack of representation, and troop presence in the British colonies. The right to protest is protected in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

As a result of the First Amendment, the federal government is restricted in its power to regulate speech and assembly of those who wish to protest and petition the government, no matter what the cause. Whether that be the Ku Klux Klan marching in Washington D.C. in 1925, the Bonus March in 1932, the Civil Rights march in 1963, or the Women’s March in 2017, the right to protest is protected, no matter what ideology or beliefs the protests represent.

Ku Klux Klan members hold a march in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 9, 1925. Courtesy of NPR.

Therefore, any efforts to restrict Americans’ protected right to protest is un-American, as it would oppose rights given to American individuals through one of the most revered governing documents in American history. You don’t need to support what protesters are fighting for, but you do need to acknowledge that their protests are protected.

Historically, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were criticized for raising their fists in a Black Power sign during the 1968 Olympics. In recent years, athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Gwen Barry have been canceled for their views and attacked as “un-American” for their protesting racial injustice and police brutality during the national anthem. Gwen Barry in particular has broken the right and revealed a hypocrisy of cancel culture.

Gwen Barry protesting racial injustice during the national anthem. Courtesy of News Colony.

As Americans, they have the right to protest in a peaceful symbolic way, which this is. However, they were criticized for showing “disrespect to the flag and to the anthem” for deciding to protest during that time.

Black power fists at the 1968 Olympics. Courtesy of History.com.

If the point of protest is to get change, it makes sense to do it at a time when people can see you. Unfortunately, some on the right have viewed the national anthem as more American and sacred than the right of protest itself. People like Kaepernick and Barry were criticized for not protesting in the right way.

So in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, protests in Minneapolis and in other major cities became violent and grew out of control as looting and chaos marked much of the summer. Black Lives Matter protesters were all lumped together as “rioters and looters,” and conservatives told the movement that they should protest peacefully.

Black Lives Matter protests became violent in Minneapolis and threatened the movement’s credibility. Courtesy of the GV WIre.

Was this not what Colin Kaepernick had done before and what Gwen Barry had done just days ago? The timeline starts with Kaepernick peacefully protesting and getting criticized. Then when some Black Lives Matter protests became violent, they were told to protest peacefully. Then Gwen Barry protests peacefully and is told that that isn’t the right way to protest.

If violent and peaceful protest are both “wrong ways to protest,” what is the right way to do so? Is there a right way, or is the only “right” way to protest for a cause that someone agrees with?

The criticism of peaceful and violent protest has existed since the Civil Rights movement when Martin Luther King Jr. was criticized for marches and demonstrations and sit-ins. Malcolm X was also criticized for armed protests with the Black Panthers. So if both of these men were wrong in how they chose to protest, then it seems that the disagreement among critics is not the form of protest, but the act of protest itself.

An armed Black Panthers protest. Courtesy of Berkeley Political Review.

The hypocrisy of the conservative criticism of protest was seen in the January 6th insurrection which started off as a protest and became violent, as protesters sought to stop the election results from being certified. Even now, as all Black Lives Matter protesters are lumped together as looters and rioters, I know that it would be unfair to label all conservatives and Trump supporters as January 6th insurrectionists.

A Trump protest gone violent on January 6th. Courtesy of ABC News.

Violent protest is not protected by the Constitution, and what happened at the Capitol on January 6th was not protest. Neither was what happened as Minneapolis burned.

This 4th of July, I want you to recommit to the idea of peaceful protest and to support that constitutionally protected right in principle, no matter who is the protester. Whether the protester is a veteran, anti-war activist, woman, Trump supporter, Christian, or a black athlete, the right to American protest must be protected both in law and in practice. What better day to recommit to the protection of the right to protest than today?

Happy July 4th.

Quentin Choy, creator of <em>WeTheCommoners Blog</em>
Quentin Choy, creator of WeTheCommoners Blog

Quentin is a student of Political Science. He became interested in history and politics in 2015 watching the Republican and Democratic primaries as well as the 2016 General Election.

He is from Hawaii and currently attends school in Colorado.

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