The idea of protest evokes images of minorities taking a public stand or groups that are outside the mainstream protesting for basic civil liberties. When people protest, it is often against injustice or an attempt to stop a policy or practice that would go unquestioned. In 2016 Colin Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers football player, was in the news for kneeling during the National Anthem at a game last year. His protest was not received well by many Americans because they thought what he did was disrespectful to this country, to the flag, and to service members. I will explain why restricting peaceful protest is the disenfranchisement of our liberal democracy and civil liberties. When the First Amendment no longer supports fundamental freedoms like taking a knee, this is a sign that our democracy is in danger.
On 23 January 2017, the Intercept published a story about a potential legislative bill that would increase criminal penalties and arrest a person for protesting. Taking a knee, which symbolizes a peaceful protest, is a fundamental right provided by the First Amendment, and an integral part of our liberal democracy. In the book “How Democracies Die,” Levitsky and Ziblatt explain that democracies collapse when political leaders encourage violence and display a casual disregard for constitutional norms (36). An example of this is when president Trump responded about Kaepernick’s kneeling during a “Fox and Friends” sit down which aired on NBC News. The President stated, “you have to stand proudly for the National Anthem, or you shouldn’t be playing. You shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.” People were outraged at the president’s response, and further protest occurred because of his response. When a person is punished for protesting, as Kaepernick did during the National Anthem, it allows the state to deprive our rights and privilege, it demeans minority groups and gives the government the authority to prohibit speeches and protest that they do not like.
In 1791 the First Amendment was adopted into the U.S Constitution and it states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (Editorials). The act of protest exercises rights such as freedom of expression and the right to assembly, petition and dissent. That is why the First Amendment is significant in maintaining a democratic government. The article, “Protest in a Liberal Democracy” by Martin explains that “challenging the status quo is tricky. Dominant groups have various ways to limit the effectiveness of challenges, including promoting a narrow conception of ‘acceptable protest,’ channeling dissent into appeals to the government and, if necessary, using repression.” When you take away a person’s rights, it is the disenfranchisement of our liberal democracy.
Disenfranchisement of liberal democracy is explained in the book, “How Democracies Die”when George Wallace engaged in what journalist Arthur Hadley called the “old and honorable” American traditions of the powerful. Wallace made a statement, “there is one thing more powerful than the constitution…. That’s the will of the people”. Disenfranchisement laws violate our First Amendment, and for generations, Americans have retained great faith in their constitution, as the centerpiece of a belief that the United States was a chosen nation and a beacon of hope and possibility to the world. But, democracy will suffocate or fail if politicians began to enforce laws that serve the interest of the few while ignoring the many. Many politicians chimed in during Kaepernick’s peaceful protest and either supported and disapproved of him using the National Anthem to set the example. But when political leaders like the President speak negatively about issues, it has a profound impact on societies views and laws.
For example, when President Trump, who did not support Kaepernick’s decision, told NBC News, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.” This statement sparked outrage and proves that the rich and powerful cares less about the injustices happening in our country. The fact that the most powerful political leader can make such outrageous statements is an example of what Levitsky and Ziblatt refer to in “How Democracies Die” as the Guardrails of Democracy. Extremist demagogues like Donald Trump can threaten our democracy by restricting our First Amendment rights and our way of life and threaten democracy.
A second reason is restricting peaceful protest disenfranchises of our civil liberties which are protected today because someone in our history took to the streets or had a peaceful protest, which established laws for the good of the community. One example is Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 1969. This case involved three public school students who wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The students were suspended from school because they wore the black armbands after being warned not to. Later, the students sued the district for violating their First Amendment right. The outcome was that the Supreme Court established the “Tinker Test” a standard test that public schools must meet before legally restricting free speech. Civil liberties laws played an essential role in protecting the students and helped enforce a change.
Having peaceful protest is the “American Way,” and any kind of disorder or defiance of authority is unacceptable and unnecessary. Despite the norm of society, these gestures cannot be enforced and are not illegal if you choose not to participate. Using any platform, whether it’s taking a knee at a football game, or wearing black armbands to school to evoke your First Amendment rights, is what a liberal democracy stands for in the US. It’s not about disrespecting the flag or the country; it’s about bringing awareness to important issues. The government should not intervene and disenfranchise our liberal democracy or civil liberties because our constitution and our First Amendment protects freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. As the great Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Kaepernick chose not to be silent but instead used his platform as an NFL player to bring attention to racism, hate, inequality and police brutality.