Our national nightmare continues, this time with the president of the United States using the power of the bully pulpit to condemn freedom of speech. If you are not chilled by this display, then you’re not paying attention.
At a rally last Friday in Alabama, Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!” He reiterated that message in a series of unhinged weekend Tweets.
Note to Trump and his white supremacist base of supporters: You do not get to dictate the when and where of someone else’s protest against injustice. Watching coverage of this weekend’s NFL protests, Trump supporters denounced the players for taking action on the field and polluting the Sunday football ritual with politics. They misunderstand the point of protest. It’s not about choosing a convenient time and place for expression; it’s about disrupting norms and getting people to pay attention and think about something they might not otherwise think about. Imagine if the ACT UP protesters of the 1980s and ‘90s had tiptoed around all the straight people who hated them and quietly picketed on the discreet sidelines. No! They closed roads, disrupted church services and deployed shocking images of the suffering to awaken the world to the horrors of AIDS and government indifference to an epidemic that was killing unpopular people.
You don’t get to tell oppressed people when and where to protest their oppression.
Of course, the NFL is a private entity and its owners can enact whatever rules of conduct they like. They could ban protests of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and fire players who refuse to stand, as Trump suggests. But they haven’t done that. Instead, owners and coaches finally joined players on the field to send a message that Trump’s insults and efforts to undermine free speech won’t be tolerated.
It’s one thing to oppose on-field protests. It’s quite another to oppose the right of American citizens to take a knee if that’s their chosen form of protest speech. I abhor the KKK, but would defend their right to freely associate and to speak their hate. The answer to speech you don’t like is more speech.
Make no mistake that Trump’s outburst is consistent with his pattern (plan?) of dividing Americans along racial lines. It’s also meant to distract us from the latest effort to repeal the ACA, the signature legislative achievement of the country’s first black president whose legitimacy was challenged by Trump’s racist birther attacks. And while Trump spent his weekend fighting with athletes on Twitter, brown people (fellow Americans) in Puerto Rico were coping with the complete devastation of the island after Hurricane Maria.
Coddling and excusing white supremacists in Charlottesville while calling for the termination of black football players from the NFL is just the latest in a long string of racist attacks from Trump. The ultimate irony is that while he tries to divide us, the NFL sent a powerful message of solidarity. Even Tom Brady and Robert Kraft — Trump buddies — spoke out against him this weekend. The best outcome of this would be for Americans to unite against Trump’s message of division and embrace again the principles that made America great in the first place. The absolute freedom of the press and of expression are key among those principles.
Sadly, some members of the LGBT community haven’t gotten the message about Trump’s racism, homophobia and anti-trans attacks. The Log Cabin Republicans this week are holding a fundraiser at Trump International Hotel in D.C., an inappropriate attempt at currying favor with the administration by lining Trump’s pockets. Imagine their outcry if President Obama had owned a hotel in D.C. and the Human Rights Campaign held its fundraisers there. It’s a disappointing decision from the group, which rightly declined to endorse Trump during the campaign. Log Cabin should rediscover its integrity and move the event. We should not tolerate an American president who is so hostile to the basic tenets of our Constitution, a document he swore to defend.
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.