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Trump’s tweets about the NFL protests miss the point entirely

Player protests are not about disrespecting the flag or the national anthem.

President Donald Trump. Olivier Douliery/Pool via Getty Images

President Donald Trump is upset again — this time, at a sports league.

On Friday and Saturday, he called on the NFL to fire players who protest during the national anthem. On Monday, after Trump’s comments led more players to protest during Sunday’s games, he tweeted “#StandForOurAnthem” and retweeted someone who called for a boycott against the NFL.

Trump seems to be under the impression that these protests are disrespectful to the entire country. In his initial tweet, he said that NFL players “should not be allowed to disrespect … our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem.” His later retweet also suggested that not standing for the national anthem is an affront to military veterans.

This misses the point of the protests entirely. These demonstrations are not about disrespecting the flag or the nation. They are not about disrespecting the military, especially given that some military veterans have participated in and supported the protests ever since Colin Kaepernick jump-started them.

This is about systemic racism in America — and particularly police brutality. As Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett put it in a recent letter, there’s a widespread belief that in America, a person’s race can get him killed at the hands of police. Bennett claimed to experience this exact same thing in a recent police stop in Las Vegas, noting that he thought, “I’m going to die for no other reason than I am black and my skin color is somehow a threat.”

Trump has joked about police brutality, has criticized Black Lives Matter, and supports “tough on crime,” aggressive policing. So it’s not surprising that he’s trying to spin the NFL demonstrations in the least charitable way possible — and make it seem like these football players are unpatriotic.

But the fact that the president is giving these protests attention shows that, to some degree, they’re working: The protests make some people uncomfortable, but they also bring attention to issues of police brutality and race that some NFL players feel have long been neglected.

There are racial disparities in police use of force

The NFL protests didn’t come out of nowhere. The statistics back up the concerns: Based on nationwide data collected by the Guardian, black Americans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be killed by police when accounting for population. In 2016, police killed black Americans at a rate of 6.66 per 1 million people, compared to 2.9 per 1 million for white Americans.

There have also been several high-profile police killings since 2014 involving black suspects. In Baltimore, six police officers were indicted for the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager was charged with murder and fired from the police department after shooting Walter Scott, who was fleeing and unarmed at the time. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.

One possible explanation for the racial disparities: Police tend to patrol high-crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black. That means they’re going to be generally more likely to initiate a policing action, from traffic stops to more serious arrests, against a black person who lives in these areas. And all of these policing actions carry a chance, however small, of escalating into a violent confrontation.

That’s not to say that higher crime rates in black communities explain the entire racial disparity in police shootings. A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.” That suggests something else — such as, potentially, racial bias — is going on.

One reason to believe racial bias is a factor: Studies show that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it’s possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he said, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”

These are the facts that animate the latest protests by NFL players — and many of them will continue to refuse to stand up during the national anthem for as long as they see police brutality continuing in America.

It’s okay if protest makes some people uncomfortable

These acts of protest may make Trump uncomfortable. But the point of them is, to some degree, to make people uncomfortable. They are meant to show Americans that something is so wrong that the routine of American life simply cannot go on as is — so it must be interrupted in some way to draw the everyday person’s attention.

Typically, this happens by disrupting streets and businesses. Civil rights protesters in the 1960s, for example, seized control of restaurants and other establishments while conducting sit-ins. This forced the people there to confront the reality that many of these protesters — some of whom were black — typically were not allowed in these businesses simply because of their skin color.

Americans by and large look back favorably on the 1960s civil rights movement. But as Judd Legum noted over at ThinkProgress, it wasn’t always this way: Public opinion polls during the 1960s repeatedly found that a majority of Americans said black people should stop the civil rights demonstrations and that the protests would ultimately hurt black people. Just as many Americans look at today’s protests uncomfortably, the same was true back in the ’60s.

Black Lives Matter has continued this line of protests through street demonstrations over police use of force, some of which deliberately disrupt the flow of traffic — again interrupting the routine of American life.

NFL players like Kaepernick, however, have discovered that they have an important position of power in which the nation quite literally has its eyes on them. So they’ve cleverly leveraged this position of power by not standing up for the national anthem — something that is sure to get a lot of people’s attention.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said during his original protests. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The point here isn’t to say that the US is bad and that the anthem and those who defend it are bad people. It’s to get people’s attention while simultaneously making the point that not everyone is as equal as our national narrative about “the land of the free and the home of the brave” might suggest.

The protests may make a lot of people uncomfortable and disrupt their routines. They may even get some people to turn off the TV next time the Bengals or Patriots are on.

But they’ve also given a higher profile to the issues these players are protesting. That could pay off in the long term, even if it’s making the president and others angry on Twitter right now.

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