TEAM Westport’s annual essay contest deals with heavy issues. In past years, the town’s multi-cultural commission has asked teenagers to weigh in on topics like white privilege and the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
This year’s subject blended race, sports and society.
The prompt referenced professional athletes who have “taken a knee” during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to bring attention to — and protest — ongoing bias and discriminatory practices in American society in general, and by law enforcement officers in particular.
In 1,000 words or fewer, Westport students were asked to describe their understanding of what it means to be a patriot, and what forms of protest against discriminatory laws, customs, or patterns of behavior you would consider legitimate.
The winners were announced last night, at the Westport Library. Their answers show that patriotism is a complex subject. It can be defined in many ways.
But it’s also a subject that our teenagers think deeply about. And they express themselves strongly, clearly and passionately about it.
Essay contest winner Henry Carter with (from left) Westport Library director Bill Harmer, TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.
Staples High School senior Henry Carter won 1st place — and a $1,000 prize — for his sophisticated, even-handed analysis of both sides of the “take a knee” controversy.
Then he went a step further. Though he believes that athletes who took a knee acted patriotically, he thinks that’s the wrong question to ask. He wants to know why the focus is on those athletes’ actions, and not on the issues they are protesting like “racial inequality and police brutality.”
Second place (and $750) winner Melanie Lust — a Staples junior — gave several diverse examples of what she envisions patriotism to be. That’s why, she says, she stands every morning for the Pledge of Allegiance.
But, she adds, she cannot be a hypocrite. Any patriot knows that “the only truly unpatriotic act is one that hinders the freedoms and rights of others.” Anyone who tries to stifle athletes’ freedom of expression is acting unpatriotically. So, she says, the protesters are the true patriots.
TEAM Westport essay finalsits (from left) Rachel suggs, Sophie Driscoll, Henry Carter and Melanie Lust.
Staples junior Sophie Driscoll (3rd place, $500) also called the “take a knee” athletes patriotic. She draws parallels between the current movement and others in American history, like the Revolutionary War, women’s suffrage and civil rights.
Staples freshman Rachel Suggs took the first-ever honorable mention. Her essay weaves her ancestry — on her father’s side, she’s a direct descendant of an earl who helped finance the Mayflower; her mother immigrated to the US from South Africa to escape the oppression of apartheid — with her arguments about the true meaning of patriotism.
There are many ways to be a patriot — and many ways to craft a cogent essay about this important subject. You can read 4 of the best below.
1st Place: The Ill-Considered Nature of Our Discussion of Patriotism
Henry Carter (Staples High School senior)
Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem in August of 2016 understandably effectuated impassioned responses around the nation and reinvigorated the debate around racial inequality and police brutality in the United States. Though harsh invectives from right-wing pundits and politicians and praise from their left-wing counterparts reflected the deep cultural divisions emerging in the months before the presidential election, Kaepernick’s actions seemed at the time to be a possible turning point in race relations, compounded by momentum from the climax of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015.
The national discourse that followed, however, was disappointing. What I, like many others, had perceived as a crucible for change fell into a recognizable pattern of political maneuvering which went frustratingly unnoticed and unchallenged by prominent activists against racial inequality and police brutality. The agenda set by GOP leaders maintained that these athletes would be judged solely by their fealty to American institutions that had oppressed them for hundreds of years, a dangerously misguided standard that not only denied their experiences as black people in the United States but distracted from the issues they were protesting in the first place. This faulty premise was implicitly accepted by proponents of the
#takeaknee movement in their misplaced efforts to authenticate the “patriotism” of protesting athletes, facilitating a discussion that has been ultimately counterproductive and oblivious to the reality of African Americans in today’s society.
Since Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee, social media has been flooded with images such as the one retweeted by President Trump in January: a widow grieving at a military graveyard, with the caption “THIS IS WHY WE STAND.” This image and the hundreds of others like it disseminated around the internet capture the focal point of outrage from conservative leaders: the belief that the athletes who chose to kneel during the national anthem demonstrated serious disrespect for veterans and those currently serving in the military.
Though this sentiment is understandable, its logic is flawed. The military is, in the symbolic sense, inextricable from the country it fights for. In this way, any protest against a nation’s symbol, such as the Star-Spangled Banner, can be misconstrued as expressing disdain for those who sacrifice themselves for the safety of civilians. GOP leaders have taken advantage of this fact to center the national dialogue around the disrespect of veterans and invoke outrage from earnest Americans who deeply care about members of the military. This has allowed politicians to not only divert attention from the reasons for protest, but advance their own careers by equating their condemnation of protests to support for the military.
The liberal counter to this conservative judgement of protesting athletes has been a naive attempt to prove the patriotism of athletes. While this may seem like a worthy goal in the ongoing debate over taking a knee, it accepts the flawed premise that black athletes must demonstrate patriotism towards a nation that has denied them civil rights and liberties since its inception, misaligning proponents of taking a knee with the original intentions of these athletes and further distracting from the true issues at hand. The athletes who take a knee are not protesting institutions that exist within the United States; they are protesting fundamentally American institutions.
The unfortunate truth is that our country was built off the backs of slaves, and this legacy has continued throughout American history. Prosperity in the United States has always been dependant upon the disenfranchisement of black people. Thus, while it may be well-intentioned, by trying to authenticate the patriotism of black athletes, proponents of the protests endorse the mistaken belief that these athletes should be judged by such a standard. As the systematic decimation of black families and communities has been an integral part of the formation and destiny of the United States, it makes little sense to define black athletes by their “vigorous support for [their] country” (as patriotism is defined by the dictionary). Not to mention, those on the left who have argued for the patriotism of protesters have also exacerbated the diversion of attention by GOP leaders from the issues being protested, further stagnating progressive dialogue on these issues.
Though I do believe the athletes who have taken a knee acted patriotically, I also believe that’s the wrong question to ask. From slavery to convict leasing to Jim Crow to housing segregation to mass incarceration, the marginalization of African Americans has been interwoven into the fabric of our nation, and it is unfair and ignorant to measure their actions by their “vigorous support” for the United States. Unfortunately, our discourse now hinges on this point and it has critically shifted the conscience of the American public away from the pressing issues being protested, such as racial inequality and police brutality.
There is a reason our founding fathers did not make free speech protected by the first amendment conditional on the fact of it being patriotic. To do so would not only hinder progress in the U.S. but create an autocratic regime in which free speech would cease to exist at all. Why then, is the focus of journalistic endeavors on both the right and the left to debate the extent to which taking a knee during the national anthem is patriotic?
What began as a promising opportunity to address racial inequality in our nation has devolved into public reckoning on the character of protesters, the result of clever political maneuvering on the right and ignorance on the left. Hopefully, moving into the future, we will consider prioritize the validity of speech over its loyalty to current institutions and paradigms, such that we will be able to create a society in which everyone is ensured life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
2nd Place: The Patriotism of Protest
Melanie Lust (Staples High School junior)
When I look at the American flag, I see a set of principles.
I see perhaps the most complex and unique history in the world. I see a small group of refugees, relentlessly persecuted by their own government, taking the ultimate risk and fleeing to an unknown land, somehow birthing a three-hundred year empire.
I see struggle. I see the first colonies during their first winter on the brink of collapse. I see eventual omnipresent British control. I see a bloody conflict for freedom, and only in its most pure and uncompromised form.
I see a rich and beautiful culture, native to the North American territory, slaughtered until it dwindled nearly out of existence.
But there is also triumph — the survival and sustainability of Jamestown, expansion into thirteen colonies, increasing establishment of more and more self-governing institutions to combat British oppression, and Washington’s climactic victory at Yorktown that won us the Revolutionary War.
I see togetherness and strength in the interminable battle for equality and stories of those who have never known peace. I see a nation slowly learning that acceptance should not only be mandated by law, but exalted morally and universally.
I see the bold red of hardship and valour, the plain white of candor, and an ever-changing constellation sewn into the deep blue field of vigilance and justice.
And what I see, more than anything, is a set of values designed to counter tyranny. Our American identity took centuries to develop, and it came first from immigrants, then from those bound by the crude chains of British oppression, then from the Founding Fathers who strove to create a society in which tyranny can never prevail again.
America is unique because its identity was not born from borders or geography or ethnic circumstance. There is no American ethnicity. To be an American, one needs only to believe in one principle: absolute liberty and justice for all.
This is what the American flag means to me, and this is why, each morning, I stand and recite the pledge. I have a profound respect for our history and values, and this is what makes me a patriot.
But any person who refers to themselves as a patriot — especially any person who passionately admires the Constitution, as I do — knows that the only truly unpatriotic act is one that hinders the freedoms and rights of others.
The right to protest and free speech is clearly detailed in the Constitution’s first amendment. The football players who choose to act on these basic rights are honoring the Constitution in the most explicit manner possible. By virtue of living in a country such as ours, a nation designed since its birth to contradict all facets of fascism, the mere act of speaking freely and protesting, no matter what the context, is patriotic.
The natural exceptions for acceptable forms of protest are any that prohibit other citizens from their ability to exercise their rights. But kneeling on a field does harm to no one; nor does burning an American flag, nor does sitting down during the pledge of allegiance, nor does wearing a black band on your arm to resist American involvement in Vietnam. Looting stores and rioting in the streets is one thing; generating discussion around controversy is another.
The cause of the protest has little to do with the protest’s legitimacy. As long as no harm is done and the freedom of others is not infringed upon, the protest is legitimate. The simple brilliance of kneeling during the national anthem is that it does nothing except draw much-needed attention to the prevalent issue of racial discrimination, and it raises awareness for a broad spectrum of racial problems in our society.
Racism is an issue that affects almost every person living in our country, but is rarely talked about, and even more rarely addressed in a manner conducive to change. While I personally believe that the national anthem and flag are not representative of our modern society or racism, individuals should still have the right to manipulate the occasion of their reverence for protest.
And so, no matter how much protest of the flag conflicts with my personal values, I am in no place to criticize the football players who take a knee on national television to bring attention to the cause they believe in most. No matter how much I disagree with these protesters’ interpretation of our nation’s ideals, I would be a hypocrite to disregard their basic right to thought and expression.
The primary guiding principle of our democracy, and thus the guiding principle of American history, is exertion of individual freedom that does not inhibit the individual freedoms of others. Just as protesters have the right to silently and effectively engage a global audience about modern discrimination and racism, critics from coaches to the President are allowed to voice opinions about the topic at hand and their means of protest. However, restrictive, non-verbal criticism — such as a mandate from the federal government prohibiting football players from kneeling — is unconstitutional.
Censoring opinions that have no physical, palpable impact on anyone is a step towards fascism. The Founding Fathers explicitly designed our nation to contradict all political instruments that would advance authoritarianism. The fact that protesters are able to express their opinions without censorship is an exact result of this design, and it perfectly encapsulates the beauty of a democratic society.
The struggle, the separation, the ceaseless and bloody wars for freedom, the oppression and liberation, all led up to the nation we know now. In fact, protest against any cause at all should be viewed as a blessing , not disrespect for the nature of our country. A protester is a perfect model of the Constitution’s vision; he/she is openly speaking his or her mind, in effect contradicting fascism; he/she is following in the steps of the protesters that created our country to begin with; he/she is a true patriot.
3rd Place: Patriots Exercise and Defend Essential Freedoms
Sophie Driscoll (Staples High School junior)
True patriots demonstrate love for their country by exercising and protecting its core principles, even in the face of personal risks. Thus, the participants of the “take a knee” movement are patriots.
The “take a knee” movement was launched in 2016 by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in response to numerous fatal shootings of African Americans by police officers. According to data collected by The Guardian, 266 black Americans were killed by police in 2016, with black males aged 15-34 nine times more likely to be killed by police than any other demographic. Initially, Kaepernick sat during the national anthem before an NFL game. When questioned by reporters, he explained that he was sitting to protest racial discrimination by police officers.
After former Green Beret and Seahawks player Nate Boyer told Kaepernick that it would be more respectful to those in the military to kneel rather than sit during the anthem, Kaepernick began to “”take a knee”,” i.e. kneel silently, during the national anthem. Since then, other athletes in the NFL and elsewhere have similarly taken a knee in protest of racial inequality. By leading this movement, Kaepernick has used his platform as a professional athlete to speak for the voiceless.
The “take a knee” movement should be categorized with the American Revolution, the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement and other iconic protest movements as the quintessence of American patriotism. Like the “take a knee” movement, most of the protest movements that fostered important social change in this country were criticized in their day but are now thought of as a reflection of our most important values.
For example, a 1966 Gallup poll indicates that at that time nearly two-thirds of Americans had an unfavorable view of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, today, he is a revered civil rights hero honored with a national holiday. Similarly, although some people criticize Kaepernick’s protests against racial discrimination, it is likely that he will be more widely respected as a patriot in the future. Both the civil rights movement and the “take a knee” movement have exercised freedom of expression for the purpose of casting light on problems of racial discrimination that have plagued our nation throughout its history.
Critics of the “take a knee” movement contend that it is unpatriotic because it disrespects the military. This is based on the erroneous idea that the flag is inextricably linked with the military and a refusal to stand for the anthem is essentially a criticism of the military.
This argument misses the mark. The flag and the national anthem are not symbols of the military exclusively. Moreover, the brave men and women who have fought and died for this country have done so in order to preserve our values and freedoms. It would undermine those values and freedoms to muzzle Americans who peacefully express their opinions, especially about a matter as important as racial discrimination.
Kaepernick has, in fact, demonstrated his respect for the military through his choice of gesture. Kneeling silently is a solemn act. It is not rude; it is not violent; it does not express any disregard for the military; and it does not inhibit anyone else from expressing their patriotism in whatever manner they choose, including by standing and singing the national anthem.
Furthermore, in sports, taking a knee has historically been regarded as a respectful gesture. Players “take a knee” when another player is hurt. In this context, taking a knee is an acknowledgment of vulnerability and unity. It conveys the message that the injury is serious and worthy of concern. Correspondingly, when players “take a knee” during the national anthem to protest racial discrimination and the alarming disparities in police shootings of African Americans, they are respectfully demonstrating shared humanity in a moment of legitimate crisis.
Conversely, behavior that undermines or contradicts the principles that a country holds dear is unpatriotic. The comments about the “take a knee” movement made by the President of the United States are an example. In September, he publicly referred to any NFL player who takes a knee as a “son of a b****” and indicated that such players should be fired. In contrast, just a month earlier, the president characterized the white supremacists who violently marched in Charlottesville, shouting white supremacist and anti-Semitic slogans, as “very fine people.”
Comments such as these are deeply troubling, and they intentionally divide Americans. They also reflect disregard for freedom of expression, a principle so essential to our society that it is reflected in the Bill of Rights. This issue resonates with me because I am involved with Inklings, the Staples High School student newspaper. As a young journalist, it has been especially alarming to see the leader of our country attempting to suppress free expression. Obviously, our nation’s principles demand that everyone is permitted to express their opinions. But for a president to crudely criticize athletes who engage in respectful, dignified protest concerning an issue of great importance is contrary to this country’s fundamental values and therefore unpatriotic.
Ultimately, it should be acknowledged that neither kneeling before the flag nor standing before it is always an indication of patriotism. What qualifies someone as a patriot are the values behind the actions he or she takes. Kaepernick’s values are clear; he has fought for equality both on and off the field. Kaepernick donated one million dollars, as well as all of the proceeds of his jersey sales from the 2016 season, to organizations working in underserved communities. He also founded the Know Your Rights Camp, which teaches youth about self-empowerment and interacting with law enforcement. Kaepernick is an inspiration to me personally, and it is clear that his values align with those of our founding fathers. In my eyes, he has proven himself to be a true patriot.
Honorable Mention: They Don’t Have to Stand For It: Patriotism and Legitimate Protesting in America
Rachel Suggs (Staples High School freshman)
As a nation, we are in the midst of a painful and angst ridden debate about the “correct” interpretation of patriotism. However, I believe that patriotism cannot be fully defined by words alone, as it is an unstoppable and infectious force that ripples through the hearts of a people. It is depicted through feelings such as hope during the Olympics, or determination when called to arms during times of threat. Patriotic beliefs are influenced by our personal ancestry, race, life experiences, and family values. Just as every American has their own understanding of patriotis, they also have their own emotional response to the meaning of the flag and how it should be honored.
Indeed, my patriotic values — shaped by my familial roots — are a mosaic of the American ethos. On my paternal side, my American lineage dates back to the 1600’s. I am a direct descendant of the Second Earl of Warwick who financed the Mayflower that brought the first pilgrims to America. Moreover, a Suggs male has fought in every American war, from the Revolutionary War, up to and including Vietnam where my grandfather won a bronze star for his service. In contrast, on my maternal side, I am a first generation American. In high school, my mother immigrated here from South Africa in order to escape the oppressions of apartheid.
I define patriotism as the manner in which one lives their life, in ways granted by and in order to contribute to their country. I therefore believe that it is one’s patriotic duty to protest injustices of any kind. I have walked this walk: I proudly marched at the Women’s March on Washington, I held up my “disarm hate” sign outside a Trump campaign rally at Sacred Heart University, and last month I stood in solidarity at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Memorial and wept. Despite my anger at the reasons for needing to protest in the first place, I felt uplifted while joining my voice with others to change the consciousness of our country. I therefore salute the “take a knee” protest movement initiated by several NFL players, because their purpose was to increase awareness of ongoing racial discrimination and police killings of black men.
When President Trump and others disagree with me, calling the players unpatriotic, I understand their perspective. They believe that the flag represents the hard work and ultimate sacrifices that men and women in arms have made for our freedom, with each star and stripe symbolizing a fallen soldier who died to ensure that American families sleep safely in their beds at night. With this interpretation, kneeling for the waving flag refuses to honor and spits on the legacy of our fallen heroes.
Yet, it is because of my military bloodline that I am drawn to exactly what American soldiers have been fighting to protect. My grandfather and his forefathers fought to defend the
U.S. Constitution, which states in the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.”
I am confident that if my grandfather were alive today, he would not feel disrespected.
Rather, he would applaud the football players, precisely because they were peacefully protesting on national television without fear of government prosecution. It would be as if they were showing my Grandfather that his service and sacrifices were worth it.
Likewise, due to my knowledge of my mother’s history, I am grateful to live in a country that protects the right to protest and I do not take it for granted. My mother still struggles with the psychological consequences of witnessing unspeakable acts of violence and police brutality committed against the black community during apartheid. It pains me to know that despite her horror and outrage, she was afraid to publicly speak out for fear of imprisonment. She grew up without the same constitutional rights that Americans enjoy.
Thus, I view the “taking a knee” movement as something that the NFL players are not only free to do, but are called on to do. Many of them have been personally impacted by the corrosive effects of racial discrimination, and it was through protests by those who came before them that the road for their own career success was paved. So, by carrying the torch forward, they are honoring their own legacy; they are using their fame to draw attention to those whose voices may not be protected.
Nevertheless, while the player ‘s form of protest is honorable, if someone were to bum, sit on, vandalize, or denounce the flag in any other way, I would feel deeply offended on behalf of my military family. However, instead of expressing hate towards America or a group of people, the NFL players are showing the desire for their beloved country to progress into a more mature, evolved, and inclusive version of itself. This is in contrast to the protests in Charlottesville which were fueled by messages of exclusion and superiority, and whose symbols evoked fear in many minority groups. They had self interest, not the country’s best interest at heart. To me, this discrepancy is the difference between patriotism and disrespect: hope versus fear.
For as long as the American flag is waving, the correct treatment of it will remain at the heart of controversy, as is the beauty and fragility of our democracy. Viewing this divisive debate through the lens of a descendant of a funder of the Mayflower, and as a first generation immigrant, I affirm that kneeling for the flag is a form of legitimate protest.
As for me, I hope that the country I love, that my family has helped to protect and build, as well as start a free life in, will continue to provide me and future generations with the inspiration to protest injustices. In the sense that kneeling for the flag is an act that the flag ‘s message protects, kneeling for the flag is defending the flag.