When the pledge of allegiance came on at Windfern High School, in Harris County, Texas, India Landry stayed in her seat. The 17-year-old had done so over the last school year because she doesn’t believe the American flag represents “liberty and justice and all that. It’s not obviously what’s going on in America today.” Until last week, Landry remained seated without being punished for it. But on Oct. 2, the week after President Donald Trump tweeted that the NFL should “fire or suspend” players who kneel during the national anthem, India Landry was suspended from school with no return date given.
The Friday prior, two football players in nearby Crosby, Texas, were ordered to remove their uniforms and leave the team after staging their own protest. Cedric Ingram-Lewis, a sophomore on the Victory & Praise Christian Academy team, raised his fist during the national anthem. His cousin, senior Larry McCullough, took a knee. When their head coach, Ronnie Mitchem, was called by local news to explain himself, he told the Houston Chronicle, “I’m a former Marine. That just doesn’t fly, and they knew that.”
The retaliatory acts against Black Americans who protest during the national anthem don’t stop at the Texas border. Social media is still brimming with the story about a couple of Black Los Angeles Lakers fans who kneeled during the anthem for their pre-season game against the Nuggets, and promptly had beer thrown on them by two white women. Savannah Sugg, one of the women involved, posted a Twitter video of her friend Haley Perea throwing the drink with the caption “Take a kneel for the land of the slaves.” And a new story has developed at Albright College, a Division III school in Pennsylvania: Gyee Durante, Albright’s backup quarterback, kneeled during the anthem, and was subsequently booted from the team.
I bring up these incidents to provide some social context behind the conversation on free speech, in the wake of ESPN’s suspension of Jemele Hill. Last Sunday, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones declared he would bench any player who “disrespects the flag” by kneeling during the national anthem. This led fans to tweet at Hill, who was already in hot water with the network for calling President Trump a white supremacist on her Twitter account. Hill’s response to fans was to ask for understanding of the position in which Dak Prescott, the Cowboys’ starting quarterback, and star wide receiver Dez Bryant found themselves placed. Stand for the anthem, and be labeled sellouts; kneel during the anthem, and possibly lose their livelihoods the way Colin Kaepernick did.
Instead, Hill suggested, fans angered by NFL owners’ crackdown on peaceful protest might instead pick up the torch by boycotting the games, the team merchandise, and the advertisers upon which those owners depend. It was not a call to action, nor an expressed approval of a boycott. Hill did what Black people with public platforms have always done during times of civil unrest: discourage lateral attacks among the oppressed classes (famously described by late philosopher Paulo Freire as “horizontal violence”), and offer a reminder of who really holds the power to enact change.
For this, ESPN removed Jemele Hill from the air for two weeks.
The suspension took place mere weeks removed from Donald Trump openly calling every last NFL protester a “son of a bitch.” It was a level of vitriol he couldn’t once again muster up for the gunman who killed 59 people, and injured hundreds who attended a country music concert in Las Vegas. It was also the same day Mike Pence staged a walkout at an Indianapolis Colts-San Francisco 49ers game, spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to publicly chastise American citizens who exercised their constitutionally protected rights. Within this social context, white retribution against Black political speech is commensurate with most of American history. Government suppression is unnecessary, when public leadership can deputize everyday citizens into policing the methods of Black resistance.
Where Black identity is concerned, all speech is political speech. In a social environment where principals suspend students, coaches expel players, and spectators are confident shouting slurs and dumping beer on the heads of silent protesters (in an eerily similar fashion to the pro-segregationists who showed up to the Woolworth’s lunch counter to remind integrationists just who was in charge), Black people and public figures find themselves in the exact double-bind Jemele Hill described. When other Black Americans face state-sanctioned violence and injustice, does one choose their profession and education, and even their personal safety? Or should they choose the community they represent?
In September, after Hill was reprimanded for her tweet about Trump being a white supremacist, ESPN president John Skipper issued a memo to employees: “ESPN is not a political organization,” he wrote. “Where sports and politics intersect, no one is told what view they must express.” Later in the memo, Skipper writes: “…we have social media policies which require people to understand that social platforms are public and their comments on them will reflect on ESPN. At a minimum, comments should not be inflammatory or personal.”
As I’ve mentioned before, those most violently affected have the most to lose by speaking up about white supremacy. ESPN may see itself as an apolitical organization, but it cannot avoid politics where they’ve been brought into the game by players, coaches, owners, and the President and Vice-President of the United States. Suspending a Black journalist for discouraging lateral violence among football fans is necessarily a political position. Going by ESPN’s reasoning, Hill may comment on what she sees on the field, but the conversation happening off the field, even when it involves her own community, is deemed off-limits.
Universities and high schools may see themselves in a similar light—existing outside of politics—but the personal politics of their staff, when allowed to supersede the right of students to speak out for the modern civil rights movement, make that impossible. There is no avoiding politics on the matter of Black lives. There is only the exercise of free speech in the face of oppression, or the complicity in enforcing silence among the oppressed.
By hiding behind an “apolitical” stance, and punishing Black people who dare speak up about an unjust system, institutional politics in America are clear. And they just happen to line up perfectly with a white supremacist President who demands Black Americans be punished for engaging in peaceful protest. The question isn’t whether or not speaking, tweeting, or kneeling is appropriate. It’s whether those with the ability and willingness to silence protest, while claiming a false neutrality, will ever realize whose side they’re taking.