Do you remember when you were really little, before you understood the complexities of the world, and the national anthem would play. You would stand tall and straight, with your hand over your heart. There was such a feeling of pride. America was the good guys. We were a shining light in the darkness, and it felt so good to be on the winning team.

On Sunday night I turned on my TV and just happened to land on the playing of the national anthem for the game that night. Despite intending to watch another show, I stayed on the game for a few minutes to see what the teams would do. I watched the camera pan across the kneeling players, linked arm in arm. What I noticed more than anything, was their faces. They weren’t celebrating their jab at “the man.” They weren’t mocking. If anything, they looked pained. They took no joy in what they were doing.

There’s no doubt in my mind that when those kneeling players were kids, they had the same rush of pride I did. How painful to no longer have that pride. How painful to have your naivete eroded away as you grew up and watched your country let you down, finding out that the light doesn’t burn so brightly for you if your skin is dark.

I’ve heard commentators rail about how ungrateful these players are. They’ve been given an opportunity to make millions of dollars by this country. How dare they protest anything?

I agree that this country has given hem an amazing opportunity. They were so very lucky. Many, not all, but many of these players come from poor families and poor neighborhoods. Their schools are underfunded and overcrowded, so education is not necessarily a way out. They have the option of making a quick buck through crime, and that seems pretty appealing when there are no jobs. But that quick buck will probably lead to jail and maybe even death. Then they discovered they had a remarkable physical talent that rich people love. Suddenly there was a way forward and they paid for it with years and years of sweat and punishing hits that may eventually turn their brains into monsters living inside their skulls.

Now they have reached the pinnacle. They are playing professional sports and being paid very, very well for it. Having achieved so much, what kind of men would they be if they didn’t look back to their friends, families, classmates, and neighbors who weren’t so lucky to be gifted with physical ability. There’s no golden ticket for any of them. Their life will be lived in a cycle of poverty where they can die for wearing a hoodie at night in the rain, or for selling single cigarettes. They aren’t kneeling for themselves. They’re kneeling for the people from home.

But, that Travon Martin kid was known to smoke pot. He was no angel. Yes, and so do a whole lot of white high school kids. Do you think their parents would be cool with a neighborhood watch guy killing their kid and then the media smearing him? Being a teenager is hardly a crime deserving of death. And that Eric Garner was flouting the law by selling single cigarettes. You essentially commit the same crime when you take part in an office pool, pay someone under the table, or fudge a little on your taxes. Those are equal crimes in that the government is cheated out of some of its income, except you’re comfortable with your crimes, but not so much with a poor, black guy trying to hustle up a few more dollars for his family.

How, in good conscience, do you stand with pride to honor a country that leaves your family, friends, and classmates lying dead on the street. How do you feel a part of this country when the very citizens who should stand beside you in unity, mock your children and their deaths? Why are they required to respect military service when we don’t respect their service? Black soldiers, who fought for this country, returned home to find they didn’t have the same rights they fought for in Europe. Or when they get home from Vietnam and discover that cabs won’t pick them up because they can’t see the marine uniform and only see a n*. We refuse to respect their service, but dadgumit they better know their place and respect ours.

There is no disrespect in their protest. They’re not flipping off the anthem, or wandering around talking, laughing, and slapping each other during it. With our history to black people, they’d probably be justified in doing that, but they aren’t. They are doing their best to say, “Yes, I am grateful for this country and the opportunities it’s provided and I’ll do that by being silent and recognizing the anthem is being played, but I am also recognizing that the country could do better to live up to its ideals. And I’m asking it to do better. For my friends. For my family. For my people.” It’s a beautiful compromise in a painful situation.

I have no doubt these players would love to stand with pride when they hear their country’s anthem played. Who wouldn’t? But to do so at this time would be a lie. And they’re so terribly sorry they’re interrupting your entertainment to inform you of the injustice they live with. The thing is, if this country would have united and stood with them when Sandra Bland was arrested for DWB and died in jail, and call out the injustice, they wouldn’t need to kneel. If this country would unite and call for bad cops to be removed, and bad policing practices to end, they wouldn’t need to kneel. If we would unite in trying to find a way out of the cycle of poverty, they wouldn’t need to kneel.

If you want these protests to end, than stand.

Stand with them, so they don’t have to kneel.

Who is a Terrorist?

When the attacks in Paris happened last week, I searched for something to say that wasn’t being said by everyone else. There was little to add, so I remained silent while trying to sort through my thoughts and emotions.

Typically, when the crowd all goes one way, I tend to become skeptical and veer off. The crowd has a tendency to stop thinking and just keep following… right over the cliff’s edge. So, when everyone started changing their FB profile picture with an overlay of the tricolor flag, I was hesitant. I didn’t do it for marriage equality, why should I do it for Paris. Yet, I wanted some way to show we Americans were standing with France, despite our petulant reaction to them not joining the ill-advised Iraq invasion. As it turns out, it was that very invasion that laid the groundwork for Isis to rise and attack Paris. After some hesitation, I hit the button to change my picture for a week and started shuffling along with everyone else.

The next day I regretted joining the crowd when the tricolor backlash started. Several articles pointed out that there have been lots of recent terrorist attacks in countries like Somalia (11/1 – 12 dead), Iraq (11/7 – 12 dead), Lebanon (11/12 – 43 dead), and Iraq again (11/12 – 19 dead). Nobody was rushing to overlay their flags on their profiles. I’m assuming nobody has changed their flag to Mali’s flag either. So to display France’s flag when you didn’t display theirs was to show yourself to be a racist.

I get their point. Americans so rarely care about the fate of people that don’t look and think like they do. Some blame the media, but the media doesn’t cover those trajedies, mainly because most of us don’t care. Still, the criticism felt childish. Isn’t it refreshing that something actually jarred Americans away from the latest Real Housewives episode and moved them to feel our universal connection? It felt snarky to shame normally apathetic people just when they were showing some empathy.

Besides, our empathy had more to do with familiarity than racism. Many people have been to Paris. It is a tangible place to them. Even if they didn’t know those particular locations, they can see themselves there – enjoying a late night dinner at a cafe, sharing a few drinks at a bar, or maybe taking in a music concert while visiting the City of Lights. It makes it feel very personal. It makes people feel very vulnerable. It could have been them.

Most people can’t put themselves in a hotel in Mogadishu, or on the streets of Lebanon or Iraq. We would never travel there, so while it’s tragic, that connection to ourselves just isn’t there. Because these places are often violent and unsafe, when something bad happens there, it feels expected. It does not tweak us in quite the same way.

Yesterday, while work was being done in my house, I ran off to a matinee of MockingJay Part 2. When watching the The Hunger Games, I realized what a tricky thing Suzanne Collins had done. People in the theater were actually cheering out loud at the death of children. Granted, they were the bad kids, but still, to have an audience follow you down the path to celebrate killing a child was stunning. I began to see us in the audience as not that different from the citizens of the Capital. We had become comfortable with the killing of children as entertainment.

She may have outdone herself in MockingJay Part 2. The audience will find themselves rooting for the people who spout the same ideology as modern-day terrorists, while despising the rhetoric that our politicians spew on a daily basis. Katniss argues that killing civilians is off limits, and Gale counters that if the civilians are supporting the system that oppresses them, they are fair game. His argument wins, and the Districts engage in terroristic tactics. Snow rallies the people with derision for the violent and evil rebel terrorists who hate the Capital’s freedom and lifestyle. He offers protection to his people while bombing entire cities off the map. Sound familiar?

The idealistic side of me would hope that the audience might go home and think through this dilemma. Who is a terrorist? Is it the system that oppresses, or those who use the only means available to free themselves? Is it both? What would happen if, rather than bombing cities off the earth, we reacted with an outpouring of aid and comfort? Wouldn’t it be harder to justify joining a terrorist group when your needs are met, and the enemy has become a valued friend? If at the first signs of trouble in the Districts, Snow had realized his mistakes, canceled the Hunger Games, gave limited autonomy to the Districts, and began trading the wealth of the Capital for the resources of the Districts — first, there would have been no book series, but there would also have been no rebellion, no terrorist acts, and no death. Are we Americans the Capital or the Districts?

It makes you think. Or at least it made me think. But I still have no answers. It’s a very complex world.