September 26, 2017

What The NFL Could Learn From MLK And The Civil Rights Protests

At this point, it seems there is one obvious rule for opponents of President Trump: Don’t take the bait. Somehow the president is able to create (or insert himself in) controversies the media stokes that outrage the Left.This has two important practical effects. One, it forces ordinary citizens to choose sides against the left-leaning cultural and political establishments that are Trump’s bête noire. Two, it changes the discussion so we’re not talking about Trump’s substantive failures. (How’s health-care reform coming? North Korea?)Sure enough, after Trump remarks this weekend about how players who won’t stand for the national anthem should be fired, all anyone wants to talk about is theNational Football League. Naturally, a large number of NFL players reacted negatively and made a big show of protesting the national anthem Sunday. NFL ratings, which were already sliding over previous years,fared even worse this weekend as a result.Even better, Trump’s favorite punching bag—the media—once again showed howthey don’t understand that, for better and for worse, using the national anthem as a focal point for political protest is not an issue that goes over well with much of America. The media didn’t exactly go on offense when the last president embraced the same divisive tactics in calling out his political enemies. Sure, Obama wasn’t so crass as to call them a “son of a b—ch” on national TV, but maybe passing legislation forcing nuns topay for birth control or claiming there wasnot a “smidgen of corruption” when the Internal Revenue Service actively admitted to targeting conservative groups was substantively worse.Nonetheless, there are some important lessons here, about the value of political protest and how it should be conducted, being lost in the culture war. These could not only make what NFL players are doing(and related protests against racial injustice) more effective, but help the country come together. They would also hamstring Trump’s ability to distract frommore substantive problems. All it requiresis learning the lessons from the last era of successful protest.Before the counterculture of the late 1960s turned American political protests into a contradictory spectacle of unchecked individualism and radical leftism, the civil rights protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. were a case study in disciplined political campaigning. While systemic racism obviously remains a serious problem, the protests of the’50s and early to mid-’60s were wildly successful in achieving tangible progress.I regret to say that what’s going on in the NFL is destined to agitate rather than accomplish, because no one seems to have learned the lessons of civil rights protests.1. Have a Clear Message and GoalThe civil rights movement worked hard on messaging. In 1963, they brought in broad coalitions and had negotiations forwhat goals they wanted to push for. By the time the March on Washington occurred that year, anyone following the event could clearly discern two messages that were intentionally chosen:Better jobs for African-Americans, and laws codifying civil rights protections. The landmark Civil Rights Act was passed into law less than a year later.Can someone tell me what NFL players are trying to achieve here? Some sort of generalized awareness of ongoing racism? What are ordinary Americans supposed to do in response to this display? Are they offering a goal we can all agree on or debate the merits of? No one has any idea. So this protest, in the absence of a clearly defined point, looks like millionaire athletes throwing a tantrum, no matter how incredibly important the issue animating them is.2. Embrace Patriotism, American Ideals, and InclusivityFrom the beginning of King’s “I have a dream” speech, we see it is a call to live up to American ideals. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” MLK said. “This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”Rhetorically, King wasappealingto patriotism. He is clearly saying if you believe in the principles laid out in the Declaration and the Constitution, you can’t tolerate racial injustice—a message as true today as it was then. One of the lessons of the civil rights movement is that appealing to patriotism and American values is an effective route to moving public opinion.Further, while it was obvious that the focal point was justice for black Americans, the message was that addressing racism was an issue of coming together: “When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”Now, taking a knee can be seen as a respectful gesture, nor is it necessarily announcing you reject American values. But it’s also doing literally the opposite ofwhat you are supposed to do during the national anthem—stand. People unavoidably see it as disrespectful. Drawing attention to yourself and your cause at the one time we come together to collectively express our patriotism andshared American values is going to be unavoidably be seen as unpatriotic. That actively repels people instead of appealing to commonly held political values.3. Optics and Unity MatterEven though there were 150,000 people atthe March on Washington, it was an incredibly staged event. You couldn’t just show up. People were told where to stand. They were dressed in their Sunday best. Any signs were pre-made or had pre-approved messages.