This is the story of two young men: one black, one white, and both of whom wear uniforms.
We’re already familiar with the black man, whose refusal to stand for the national anthem has become a cause celebre and triggered a discussion about what are the limits of patriotism and free speech. My column was going to be focused on Colin Kaepernick and the ramifications of his choice. But then I heard about the white man, a West Point graduate and Pennsylvania native named Spencer Rapone. And what he did convinced me that this was about more than just a football player taking a knee before kickoff.
Rapone is, as of this writing, a second lieutenant in the US Army. He is also someone who likes to post controversial things on social media, including a picture of himself in full uniform with the words “Communism Will Win” written on the inside of his cap. He also proudly showed off the shirt he was wearing underneath his jacket, emblazoned with a colorful red reproduction of Che Guevara’s face. This guy graduated in 2016, at about the same time Kaepernick’s protest picked up steam.
Let’s stipulate at the outset that in Kaepernick’s case there is no First Amendment issue, and in Rapone’s case there might be.
The NFL is not an arm of the U.S. government (despite its close resemblance in terms of institutional dysfunction) and so the former QB doesn’t have a constitutional leg to stand — or kneel — on. But he does have a right to express his views without being censored, and he is doing that on a regular basis. Others have joined in to help him get that same message of protest and inequality out there on Sunday afternoons.
Rapone could point to the First Amendment, because his employer, so to speak, is the Department of Defense. However, the Code of Military Conduct has some specific provisions that cover “conduct unbecoming,” and so it’s far from certain that his words are protected speech. In fact, West Point issued a strongly worded statement that “Second Lt. Rapone’s actions in no way reflect the values of the U.S. Military Academy or the U.S. Army.” They could have added “or any American who walks upright.”
So there’s probably something else Kaepernick and Rapone will soon have in common: unemployment.
The thing that I find most fascinating about the nature of these two protests - one symbolic and one verbal — is that Rapone’s was allegedly triggered by Kaepernick’s. The “Communism Will Win” photo was tweeted out in support of Kaepernick on Monday after a weekend of public obsession about President Trump’s suggestion to fire the players who disrespected the anthem, and pushback from NFL and other major league players doing their own brand of calisthenics to support him.
Many believe that the former QB was within his rights to protest, but that he was showing immense disrespect for the symbols of our democracy. People raised their own voices in counterprotest or engaged in boycotts. (Not me, because there is always the possibility you might miss a 61-yard game-winning field goal against your division rival.)
I have no problem letting a football player protest what he believes to be inequality (and what is an unfortunate mish-mash of legitimate claims of police brutality and legitimate acts of police valor) because, it’s a hallmark of our democracy. At the same time, I’m sure not going to let those protests go unanswered without some of my own “expression” about how this narrative of an institutional war on young black men is just that: a subjective narrative. There’s obviously some truth to the idea that the police have exercised very poor judgment in the past, resulting in the deaths of innocent men. To deny that is to be a blind lackey for those who think the badge is a “get out of jail free” card.
But the suggestion that virtually every single shooting of every single unarmed black male was the product of racial malice is as ridiculous as the suggestion that Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen. It’s a political claim advanced by demagogues and their lemmings, not a logical conclusion supported by fact.
Pushing back against this “taking the knee” phenomenon is a fair response to Kaepernick’s “freedom of speech.” In fact, it’s a necessary one.
Spencer Rapone is a different matter. While the only real damage Kaepernick can do is screwing with our Sunday afternoons, this U.S. Army officer poses a threat to the government that provides him, the notorious QB and the rest of us with the right to shout out our grievance.
Rapone needs to go.
As far as the other guy in uniform, let him preach to his ever-growing choir. I’ll be protesting right back.
God bless America, right?
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.