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Diverse United States divided on symbols of patriotism

RUSSELL CONTRERAS and DEEPTI HAJELA | 10/16/2017, 10:04 a.m.
When Afghanistan War veteran Joseph Smith saw NFL players take a knee or raise a fist during the playing of ...
U.S. Army veteran Joseph Smith, 32, sits outside his home in Houston's Freedmen's Town, June 29. Smith says NFL players protesting during the national anthem did not offend him. Russell Contreras

FREEDMEN’S TOWN, Texas (AP) – When Afghanistan War veteran Joseph Smith saw NFL players take a knee or raise a fist during the playing of the national anthem last month, he wasn’t offended – he was proud. Where some saw it as disrespectful, he saw it as patriotic.

“It’s not an insult against the flag. It’s a stand up of your beliefs,” said Smith, 32, a Black community activist in Houston’s historic Freedmen’s Town, a neighborhood settled by emancipated slaves after the Civil War.

A silent protest against police brutality, started last year by then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, has evolved into a statement about patriotism and the nation’s symbols, drawing some heated responses – including from President Donald Trump, who referred to an NFL player making a gesture during The Star Spangled Banner as a “son of a b----” who should be fired.

But for some people of color, patriotism goes beyond standing up for an anthem or a pledge and encompasses many feelings – including protest. Criticism of that expression of patriotism, they say, is sometimes cloaked in racism.

“By Colin Kaepernick taking a knee for the purpose that he’s taking a knee for ... if the president doesn’t respect that then he doesn’t respect our people at all,” said J. Cain, 25, a Black Freemen’s Town resident.

After Trump criticized the protests, more than 200 NFL players and some team owners took part in a variety of gestures during the playing of the national anthem before games. Some locked arms while others took a knee or raised fists.

The protests were more muted this past weekend, though Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Marcus Peters sat during the anthem on Monday night. Several University of New Mexico players also kneeled during the national anthem last week.

An AP-NORC poll conducted Sept. 28 to Oct. 2 found that a majority of Americans think refusing to stand for the national anthem is disrespectful to the country, the military, and the American flag – and a majority also disapprove of Trump calling for NFL owners to fire players who refuse to stand.

Among African Americans, however, there was approval for gestures of protest around the anthem. Fifty percent of Blacks said refusing to stand for the anthem can be an act of patriotism, compared to 36 percent of Whites. And 60 percent of Blacks, but just 23 percent of Whites, said they would consider not standing for the anthem themselves as a form of protest.

“It doesn’t matter if you stand, put your hand on your heart, raise a fist or give the flag the finger,” said Jasyn Johnson, 38. “What matters are your actions as a man when no one else is looking.”

Johnson said the recent controversies won’t influence his public displays of patriotism. At times, he has not stood for the Pledge of Allegiance at his daughter’s elementary school events, while other times he has.

Eugene Gu, 31, a surgical resident at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, posted a picture of himself on social media taking a knee in solidarity with the athletes’ protests. He got backlash and supportive responses. Some questioned how he, as an Asian American, could have become a doctor if America was so racist. Others went as far as telling him to leave the country.