Our Opinion: Can we listen?

They gathered in that spot to launch the "Campaign Nonviolence" movement in Vermont, carrying signs proclaiming their hopes for a more just society and building a culture free from war, poverty, racism and environmental disaster.

Maybe you drove by and honked in support. Maybe you just drove by.

Either way, in this community, freedom of speech and the rights of citizens to protest isn't vilified, marginalized or insulted. It's understood and respected as an important part of our democracy — the right to stand up for what you believe in, raise your voice against injustice and speak truth to power.

After all, this is a town where the library is hosting a community dialogue trying to bring together people of opposite political and ideological views and asking some simple questions -- not only "Can we talk," but more crucially, "Can we listen?"

The latter seems to have become almost impossible in America these days, and it starts at the top.

The current occupant of the White House has made his views of the First Amendment fairly clear. If you're with him, he's all for your freedom of expression. If you're against him, prepare for insults, vitriol and dog whistles via Twitter.

And if you're an African-American professional football player who kneels during the Star-Spangled Banner to protest violent mistreatment of young black men by police, this same man says you're a "son of a bitch" and you should be fired.

We see the First Amendment a little differently.

A protest isn't supposed to make you comfortable. It's not about you, or whether the medium or the message gives you warm and fuzzy feelings. It's about getting your attention and helping you start to understand why you should question the status quo and your own assumptions.

There are lots of reasons to not watch NFL football. It's a three-hour investment, long on commercials and people talking about football and short on actual football. The athletes are potentially causing each other irreversible brain damage with every head-first hit. And the games are played in stadiums funded by taxpayers for billionaires who extorted public financing with the threat of moving the team to another town.

Yet somehow, two minutes of athletes kneeling to try and make people think about the way African-Americans are treated in this country — including unjustified fatal police shootings in some communities — is widely, and mistakenly, perceived as a bigger reason people are tuning out on NFL games.

That line of thinking is symptomatic of a particularly sinister strain of racism we've never quite banished in this country. After all this time, some white Americans are only comfortable with African-American athletes and performing artists as long as they remain silent when it comes to politics, or allow themselves to be assimilated into a culture that willfully refuses to embrace them as equals.

When those same African-Americans stand up and speak up, they catch hell. That was true for Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, and it's true today for Colin Kaepernick, who remains blackballed from the NFL because he dared to act on his convictions and knelt during the national anthem.

We're all for respecting the flag, and the anthem. Patriotism has its place, and clearly many equate reverence for the flag and the anthem with respect for those who sacrificed everything to protect it. We understand why a protest involving these symbols is so upsetting to some. But it seems to us that respecting human beings should be more important than respecting symbols — even the flag.

Let's put it this way: When activists defied Jim Crow by sitting at segregated lunch counters in the South during the civil rights movement, they didn't stop to think whether it would be popular or well-received. They knew they'd hear hateful words and risk beatings and jail time.

Those sit-ins upset a lot of people. But this is a better country because they did it anyway.

It's time we stopped reacting and started listening.


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