In the national anthem debate, what's missing is empathy

In the national anthem debate, what's missing is empathy

We can mourn our fallen soldiers and work together to lessen police-involved deaths


When American soldiers killed in battle return home, they lie in state, draped in the flag of our country.

On this Memorial Day 2018, as every American honors our fallen soldiers and the ultimate sacrifice they made, we assign a certain intensity to the meaning of respect for the flag and peaceful protest.

Especially on this day, as we take a break from the punishing modern rush hour, and we hopefully sit for a moment with our thoughts, we are reminded of the division in our own house. I’m speaking of the proverbial house of our nation, and in many cases, our own families, laid bare by the seismic change that was the 2016 election.

Unlike no other, it is the election that we still talk about daily, the one we are investigating, the one that we knew would end badly no matter what, with the winners on the defensive and the losers irrevocably disappointed.

Two years ago seems like a lifetime for many of us. The year 2016 was the last year in office of our first African-American president. It also appeared to be the culmination of several years of highly publicized unnecessary deaths of unarmed African Americans in their interactions with police. In the aftermath, the debate has raged with talking points hurled at each other – but very little concrete change. We never seem to solve, prevent or even lessen police shootings of unarmed people, or for that matter, school shootings, workplace shootings, ambushing of police officers and van attacks.

That’s because, in my observation, the news cycle has become so distracting that the public desire and focus for change has dissipated; and further, we are not hearing each other.

The first senseless police death I remember was in July 2014, when Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African American who was selling loosey cigarettes outside a Staten island convenience store, died from a chokehold and chest compression while he was being subdued by police. The owner of the apartment building where Garner frequently stood had complained to the city government, once again, about men loitering there, “selling drugs and cigarettes.” It wasn’t the first time police had had contact with Garner. Nearly two weeks before, they had backed off when he refused to be frisked. But this time, they handcuffed him on the ground, and placed him in a chokehold. The only reason the coroner ruled that his death was due to the chokehold and chest compression, rather than obesity and asthma, was because of the cell phone video that showed it happening.

That summer, like so many others, I shared the video on which Garner can be heard saying no less than 11 times, “I can’t breathe.” It was so unnecessary, so tragic, and we all felt for this man, who was doing something, anything, to provide for his family in an area marked by poverty, addiction and struggle. By December, a grand jury had declined to charge the officers involved in Garner’s death.

Over the next two years, we had more police shootings caught on video. On August 9, 2015, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead by Officer Darren Wilson in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo. I remember Brown’s body lay in the street for four hours, part of the time uncovered, and when it was covered, his feet and blood could still be seen. This nonsensical delay was viewed by everyone in the neighborhood as disrespectful to their community.

After intense protests (and rioting), and the widespread belief that Brown had held his hands up and said “Hands up, don’t shoot,” the Department of Justice under Eric Holder came out with its report on the shooting, concluding that Brown did not make the gesture or utter the words (this encounter was not captured on video). A now infamous column in the Washington Post by African-American columnist Jonathan Capehart asserted that African Americans needed to accept those “two uncomfortable truths.” Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn and other media declared that, unfortunately, “Hands up, don’t shoot” was a lie, but added that the DOJ’s 105-page report detailing the “endemic, malignant history of racism in the Ferguson Police Department” should not be ignored. His point: there’s a reason Ferguson erupted, and that reason is important. While the details of the Brown shooting did not show racism, the failure to charge Wilson doesn’t mean that racism does not exist.

In April 2015, Freddie Gray Jr., 25, died in a hospital after riding in a Baltimore police van while handcuffed but not buckled in. In November 2014, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old playing with a pellet gun, was shot by police in Cleveland, Ohio. They responded to a call describing a “man in the park with a gun.” When they arrived, they saw the youth in a gazebo adjusting his pellet gun at his waist, and shot him dead. Two outside experts concluded they were justified because they believed they faced a genuine threat, and a grand jury declined to charge them, either.

In September 2016, Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by Officer Betty Shelby in Tulsa, Okla. A jury eventually acquitted her, saying she was afraid for her life when he did not obey her commands and reached into his vehicle. This was perhaps the only case that Donald Trump has ever commented on. He was speaking at a black church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, at the invitation of its pastor, Darrell Scott, when he said he was “very troubled” by the shooting.

These cases reached everyone, and no matter what their political beliefs, brought home the reality of senseless tragedies that kept happening. For African Americans, the shootings were confirmation that they were unfairly targeted by police and that racism was the cause. White Americans varied in their opinions, depending on what their life experience had been. Many sympathized with the African American community, while many others felt it was premature to suggest racism was the cause of each incident – even if they acknowledged that the police contained “bad apples.”

By the summer of 2016, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, had had enough.  He began to sit on the bench during the playing of the national anthem. After three games like that, the media began to take notice. His teammate Eric Reid decided to join him, and according to Reid, together they planned out what they could do to draw attention to their protest while still showing respect for the flag.

“That’s when my faith moved me to take action,” Reid wrote last September, in a column for The New York Times. “I looked to James 2:17, which states, ‘Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.’ I knew I needed to stand up for what is right.”

Football fans around the country were outraged, tying the flag to our men and women in uniform. I remember defending Kaepernick on social media at the time. I felt it was wrong to ignore the realities of police shootings and the unfairness of our justice system. When Philando Castile was shot and killed near Minneapolis, after trying to avoid trouble by telling the officer that he had a license to carry and a gun in the glove compartment, I remember asking a young African-American cashier how he was doing on that day. He seemed down and withdrawn. He said, “Oh, OK, it just hurts so much. Another police shooting. And some people don’t understand why we’re upset.”

I got into arguments with white friends on Facebook. They insisted I was jumping to conclusions in assuming racism.

“Well there’s got to be a better way,” I said.

Then the 2016 election happened. I voted for Hillary Clinton. I had leaned Democrat ever since the Iraq War (not only a senseless attack but in my opinion, but a strategic blunder as well).

But after the election, I decided to commit to being nonpartisan, to understanding both sides of our political and cultural divide in an effort to point out factual errors that both sides accept as established.

I made it the goal of every waking moment to discover how different people were being impacted by the news, not just the headlines showing the outrage of the day.

I researched police shootings and other killings. I took note of the talking points on one side: “African Americans need to learn how to respond to police; when I was a child, my parents taught me to be respectful of law enforcement; Michael Brown was no angel.” And I took note of the talking points on the other side: “Yes, but Michael Brown didn’t deserve to die for robbing a convenience store; the entire criminal justice system is institutionally racist; no one believed us until the cameras were everywhere.

So what is driving these senseless events? It turns out more white people are killed by police every year on a whole. But they make up 76 percent of the U.S. population, and only 46 percent of those killed by police or 457 people. The key is that a disproportionate number of black people are killed by police compared with their share of the population (which make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population but in 2017, 22.5 percent of those shot by police or 223 people). Incidentally, fewer Hispanics were shot by police in 2017 than whites or blacks, at 179 (they make up about 17.8 percent of the population but 18.1 percent of those shot by police).


So in the events that Kaepernick and Reid were protesting, what exactly is going on? There is a disproportionate amount of African Americans incarcerated as well, and unemployed, and aborted (the population is expected to stay at 13 percent well in to the second half of the century). What I would ask, as a journalist and a statistician, is: What is causing these numbers? If police are racist, then why are fewer Hispanics shot and killed by police? Is it possible that the toxic brew of poor education, lack of available jobs, poverty and isolation in the inner cities has contributed to a cycle of poverty that keeps those without resources down, and unable to better themselves? I would say absolutely. Rural white people often suffer from the same issues as do poor African Americans.

There is no doubt that racism still exists, and we need to address it. We need to consciously reach out to people not like us, and work to put ourselves in their shoes.

When many people I knew spoke out against the NFL protests, I was surprised. My father was an electrician in the Air Force who remained stateside during World War II, but aside from him, I have no family in the military. I wasn’t aware that not standing while the national anthem was playing was viewed as dishonoring our military.

I find it interesting that when people debate the idea of “taking a knee,” those who don’t want to see a protest while they’re watching football are not that interested in talking about police killings – either that or they really don’t see the connection.

One of their talking points has been: “Millionaire football players have no business protesting at work.” Sean Hannity loves to deflect and point out that Kaepernick wore socks to practice that depicted police officers as pigs. He then goes to a refrain that was caught on video during one Black Lives Matter protest: “Pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon.” What Hannity does, and people on both sides do, is they engage in faulty generalization. They take the extreme of what one person did, and apply it to the group. The same can be said for white supremacists who supported Donald Trump’s election, and the assumption that all Trump voters were white supremacists.

In September 2017, the controversy over taking a knee had somewhat dissipated, or given way to many others, when President Donald Trump brought it up at an Alabama rally for Senate candidate Luther Strange.

Like many football fans, he felt the protests were “hurting the game.”

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!' ”

I never fully understood how hurt ex-military and military families felt when the national anthem and flag were dishonored, in their view, until I began looking at how they really view the flag. But I did understand the hurt and pain that African American and other communities of color feel when yet another senseless police shooting happens.

I would love to see President Trump acknowledge that he understands the pain behind the reasoning for the protests. And I would love to see African American communities, many of whom send men and women into military, to acknowledge the pain behind what it feels like when you have a loved one who died serving his country, and in a final honor here on earth, he or she is draped in the flag they defended.

In this hyper-partisan world, we seem to spend a lot of time arguing which kind of injustice or violence is worse than another. White men make up most of mass shooters. Islamic men commit most of the acts in Allah’s name. Police are shot by hoodlums on probation. All senseless and, I might add, all occurting because the victims belong to a certain group.

No matter what the cause of senseless police violence, or all violence for that matter, and no matter who has suffered more, the fact is, there is way too much suffering on this planet in general. Injustice is institutional, and it is also individual. Every situation should be accurately seen and acknowledged for what it is. In the matter of police department reform, if a few millionaires want to keep these injustices top of mind when they’re performing on national TV –and  if we enter in with the right spirit, that we’re in this together, maybe it won’t be such an inconvenience. And we can solve these problems together.

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