High school football player kneels during anthem, joins national conversation

Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel has divided the nation.

Musawir Chaudhry, Contributor

The controversial protest sweeping the NFL hit closer to home this month.

Michael Oppong, a student and football player at Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, knelt during the national anthem before a game September 9.

By kneeling before the game, he added fuel to a fiery debate sparked last month about peaceful protests and respect for the American flag.

The silent protest is a move inspired by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneels during the national anthem before games to raise awareness for the Black Lives Matter campaign and speak out against police brutality toward black Americans.

When a protest happens, the issue at hand typically takes center stage. But Kaepernick has drawn flak for his method of protest. Critics say kneeling during the national anthem shows disrespect for the American flag, is selfish, hurts the cause it supports and has torn at the fabric of the San Francisco team, according to USA Today.

The issue is complex, but the revelation is simple. Kaepernick’s protest has proven the American flag holds passionate, diverse meanings among different people and communities.

Oppong, the high school football player, told Boston-based television station WCVB he hoped to draw attention to issues facing people of color — like police brutality and racial bias — through his protest.

“This was my way of being able to protest,” Oppong said. “I was able to bring a lot of attention to this and able to get a lot of support.”

But critics said Oppong showed disrespect for the American flag when he knelt. The teen was threatened with a one-game suspension by his coaches.

The pending suspension was overturned by school administration, who voiced support for his right to free speech. Oppong went unpunished.

Worcester Public Schools Superintendent Maureen Binienda released a statement on the district website, saying Oppong was not in the wrong for protesting during the national anthem.

“The Doherty student did not violate any school rule when he peacefully and silently protested during the national anthem,” Binienda said in the statement. “He exercised his constitutional rights without disturbing the school assembly and he is not being disciplined in any way by his actions.”

Oppong, Kaepernick and all Americans have the right to kneel during the national anthem in protest. Americans evoke that same right to free speech when they criticize the methods of the protest.

But do not let that criticism misdirect the conversation. Beyond problems regarding protest styles, there are problems in the United States when it comes to police violence against people of color.

In 2015, the Washington Post released a database tracking the number of police shootings in that year. There were 990 people shot dead by police that year.

As of Monday, 708 people have been shot and killed by police in 2016, according to the database.

Of all unarmed people shot and killed by police last year, 40 percent were black men, according to the database. By comparison, black men make up 6 percent of the nation’s population, the database said.

There is a disproportionate number of black men who are killed by police compared to those of any other race, according to the Washington Post.

These figures allude to internal bias among police. Reform is needed, whether that change come through training or protocol.

That is what is being protested here.

Email Musawir at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @MusawirChaudhry.

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