Steve Loomis is angry.
Loomis, the head of Cleveland’s police union, is using words like “hypocritical,” “ignorant,” and “offensive,” and you might, for a wishful second, convince yourself he’s talking about that day in 2014 when two Cleveland police skidded to a stop in front of a 12-year-old black boy playing with a toy gun in a park and instantly shot him to death.
Or about how they failed to render first aid and roughed up and handcuffed his teenage sister when she ran to him.
Or about how prosecutors declined to try them for the shooting.
You might, in other words, let yourself hope you were seeing some belated moral fortitude.
But no, Loomis was just talking about a football game.
In a statement made all the more amazing by the fact that it came from a police representative in the city where Tamir Rice was killed, Loomis told Cleveland.com last week that he’s upset that members of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns refused to stand for the national anthem during a recent preseason game. In response, he said, police, who had been scheduled to bear the American flag into the stadium this Sunday during pregame ceremonies, will refuse to take part.
Let us pass lightly over the fact that, in protesting a refusal to participate in a patriotic ritual, Loomis is refusing to participate in a patriotic ritual. It is more instructive to consider this in the context of all that has happened in the year since Colin Kaepernick ignited a wave of mostly (though not solely) African-American athletes protesting America’s inequities and iniquities by refusing to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
As you may recall, his jersey was burned, he was savaged online, and singer Wayne Newton(!) said that if he didn’t like it here, “Get the hell out.” As the new season begins, Kaepernick, who was then with the San Francisco 49ers, finds himself mysteriously unemployed and unemployable. Meantime, Tucker Carlson of Fox “News” recently assured us there is no racism in football. Now, there is this.
And one can’t escape a suspicion that the real offense here is ungrateful black men acting uppity, forgetting their place. In all these protestations, there lurks a furious hiss of aggrievement. “How dare they?” it demands.
How dare they not stand for the national anthem?
(But America bullies us, then says we’re threatening.)
How dare they not put a hand to their hearts?
(But America steals from us, then tells us we’re thieves.)
How dare they not well up with patriotic pride?
(But America lies to us then pretends to be fair.)
How dare they question America?
(But Tamir Rice. But Philando Castile and Freddie Gray. But Walter Scott and Levar Jones. But Charleston. But Charlottesville.)
How dare they? America asks that question, but it never wants the answer.
This Sunday, NFL games will be played in 13 towns. In each, someone will present the American flag, someone will sing the national anthem and most people will stand to pay their respects. But a few will sit or kneel to show themselves estranged.
And maybe someone will gaze on them and ask, with righteous indignation: “How dare they?”
To ask it is to forget that America is a land of liberty and justice for some. But thankfully, it is also a land where the right to call out wrong is sacred. What we are seeing from these athletes embodies not a trend, but a principle. Because of their station as sports heroes, they have the ability to focus attention on the nation’s sins – and they feel called by conscience to do so. How dare they?
No, how dare they not?
Leonard Pitts Jr.’s email is email@example.com.