Starting in second grade, California high school student Leilani Thomas has been refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States. For years, she told Sacramento ABC affiliate KXTV, she’s been quietly affirming her First Amendment right to free speech, a right encompassing the freedom to dissent, to critique the powerful, to think and act as a self-determined human being. Thomas is also Native American. As such, she has expressed complex feelings regarding the United States and its flag. Until now, however, there has been no incident, no controversy, no media coverage of steadfast actions borne of personal conviction. She is not a politician stumping for vote, or a selfie star hoping to gain followers. She is a teenage girl trying to make it through the social gauntlet of high school.
Then San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to take a political stand by not rising to his feet when cued by the familiar strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner." His reason? “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. …There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” He is sitting down, in other words, in order to stand up for social justice.
National anthems amplify the collective political unconscious, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" is no exception. As the Intercept’s Jon Schwartz pointed out, a racist legacy of anti-Black violence is baked into that particular song. Francis Scott Key was not only its lyricist but a slaveholder, Schwartz noted, and in the song he “literally celebrates the murder of African Americans.” The crucial lines come in the third stanza: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” The dark glee of those words charges the refrain, “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” with chilling sadism, even as they add the intolerable weight of history to Kaepernick’s controversial comments.
When we sing the national anthem during the capitalist pageant that is professional football, yet insist on sticking to just the first stanza because, we reason, it’s so very long and we are anxious to get to the game, we collectively agree to the anomie of historical amnesia, refusing to see the wholeness of a vivid and seemingly deathless pattern of racist violence while insisting: I paid to be here. Now entertain me!
But Thomas’s protest is prior to Kaepernick’s in more ways than one. For before the Pilgrims, before the colonies, before the foundation of the United States took it away, this land belonged to indigenous peoples. To acknowledge this simple fact mutates the meaning of “land of the free and the home of the brave” once again. Thomas refuses to pledge allegiance to the flag because her people are victims of genocide at the hands of the U.S. government.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that California legislators also established a state-sponsored killing machine,” historian Benjamin Madley wrote in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times:
By demonstrating that the state would not punish Indian killers, but instead reward them, militia expeditions helped inspire vigilantes to kill at least 6,460 California Indians between 1846 and 1873…. In effect, the state legalized abduction and enslavement of Indian minors; slavers exploited indenture laws and federal officials prevented U.S. Army intervention to protect the victims.
And so Thomas sits during the Pledge of Allegiance recited daily at her school. She has done so for years without incident, garnering no press, and provoking no backlash from authorities. Not until this week.
“She told me I was being disrespectful and I was pretty mad,” Thomas said of her teacher at Lower Lake High School. “She was being disrespectful to me also, saying I was making bad choices, and I don’t have the choice to sit during the pledge.”
In a different interview, Thomas affirmed that her teacher “says that it [the flag] represents the military and that they risked their lives for us…And I always tell her, ‘Well, my people risked our lives for our land, for our freedom. For our rights’.”
The teacher punished Thomas and an unnamed friend who’d likewise refused to say the pledge, by reducing their participation grade in her class. Other schools are adopting a similarly authoritarian stance and insisting that all students pledge allegiance — or else.
But Thomas’ teacher was wrong on two counts. The flag does not represent the military, and Thomas does have the choice, as well as the right, to sit during the pledge. As Hugo award-winning author N.K. Jemisin observed correctly: in this country, it’s still unconstitutional to force students to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
In 1943, the United States was fighting a world war, and patriotic sentiments were running high. Arguably, it was because this country was battling the forces of fascism and Nazism abroad that the Supreme Court determined it was unconstitutional to compel Americans to pledge allegiance to the flag. If “there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” the justices of the Supreme Court wrote, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” In a separate but related controversy, the “stiff arm” salute to the U.S. flag, which was then required during the singing of the national anthem and the saying of the pledge, was being challenged due to its confusingly close resemblance to the Nazi salute. In the public sphere, in a sports venue such as the 1936 Olympic Stadium in Berlin, it was impossible to differentiate between an American Nazi sympathizer hiding behind the mantle of patriotism, and a hapless chump made to appear that way in a photo framed by his political enemies. In 1942, Congress responded by introducing the “hand-over-heart” convention still followed today.
The gestures and rituals of patriotism are mutable things. Context matters. So does history. Today, the U.S. no longer pays vigilantes to exterminate Natives under the rubric of public safety and social hygiene. Instead, governments at the state and federal level merely ignore Native concerns and Native peoples, using dehumanizing imagery while shouting over them so loudly that even the well-intentioned can’t hear them.
Earlier this week, a devastating infographic assembled by assistant professor and educator Sarah Park Dahlen showed that fewer than one percent of children’s books feature any Native American/First Nations characters, rendering entire groups non-entities in cultural consciousness by dint of systematic omission. Pop culture isn’t any more enlightened, prompting comic book writer Gail Simone to offer this trenchant tweet:
For Seriously.tv, host Dylan Marron “unboxed” the “Mistreatment of Native Americans,” offering a cheerfully snarky three-minute primer regarding the ongoing patterns of cultural and political abuse of Natives in this country. Most recently, the lack of media attention being paid to the epic protest by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota handily exposes the political mechanisms of cultural erasure via an unusually blatant display of institutional racism — the civilized, difficult-to-see racism, which has to do with legislating economic and power structures in your favor, instead of shooting innocent people (of color) when they get in your way.
Along with representatives from other tribes, environmental activists, and delegates from the Toronto arm of Black Lives Matter, the Sioux are defending their rights to tribal sovereignty, and standing to protect sacred lands from being destroyed by a three-billion-dollar oil pipeline. They are standing to protect their water supply. They are standing to protect their lives. Yet the stand-off has been going on for months with hardly any media outlets paying attention, not even after private security forces released attack dogs against peaceful protesters.
A horrifying abuse of human rights, the use of dogs to intimidate people of color looks a lot like what happened in histories not taught in school, of legal killings of Natives and the use of terror to ensure political obedience. The incident didn't appear on the nightly news. And yet, it happened. Is happening today.
And so, in California, Thomas sits in protest, refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag, for the same reason that tribal chiefs in North Dakota are standing to protect indigenous lands. As to why they are prepared to defy corporate power and state authority, to risk so much for what appears to many to be nothing at all, they are united, firm, and clear. They are “standing not just for Indigenous, they stand for humanity #NoDAPL.”
Who cares about the fate of humanity, except for storybook heroes? Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? Because in real life, the heroes protecting the planet from the wrath of the Empire are black and brown people, fighting for truth, justice, and the future.