Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport

Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport

Reprinted with permission from Creators.

Take me to the protest. Let’s meet out on the streets: at a National Football League game, a law school, the Pentagon or a March on Washington. Since I was 6, after I tied my shoelaces, I was good to go.

Teach your children. Nonviolent resistance opens a way out of the dark. The legions of kneeling NFL players, whom President Trump tongue-lashed like a plantation overseer, should be congratulated, not condemned. They created a public stage of protest to be seen and witnessed. They moved the ball of progress forward.

Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Taking a knee is a new variation on our old political tradition, with folk songs. The football field protests are not about the national anthem and flag, as Trump declares to deflect the real meaning.

The NFL players “taking a knee” are taking a stand against ingrained inequality and the culture of police brutality against African-American men.

Is it any accident that the president is berating a social statement by players who are men of color? It couldn’t be clearer that he’s launched another cannon of hate, dressed in red, white and blue. Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, they say.

Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights icon and Baptist preacher, championed nonviolence until his dying day in 1968. Creative nonviolence was his forte: visible marches like the famous one from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Peaceful marchers were beaten bloody by Deep South law enforcement. And the nation’s eyes were shocked.

Now the lost Vietnam War is again visiting us in our living rooms, through the finely crafted lens of PBS filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It lands as a bluebird in the garden and reminds us of the turmoil of the ’60s at home: the anti-war movement. In a brave stand often overlooked, King opposed the Vietnam War.

Rising public opposition to the war, first in the campus movement, was what finally ended it.Too late for the 58,000 names engraved on the Vietnam War Memorial wall.

The anti-war movement started in my Midwestern hometown: Madison, Wisconsin. The University of Wisconsin campus demonstrations — and teargas arrests — in 1967 sparked other movements in Berkeley, Michigan, Columbia. We lived in a faculty community and I was raised on anti-war protests when I was young. A professor who lived near us was a fiery leader in “The War at Home.”

I loved the exhilaration in the air, even if I knew the president (Lyndon Johnson) lied to the people. I could handle the truth. I knew where all the flowers had gone. The war was all the grown-ups talked about at dinnertime at 6 p.m., before Walter Cronkite. Then they talked some more about the war.

My mother never said so, but the lesson learned was that citizens had to speak or act when they saw the government doing the wrong thing. Democracy was depending upon us; it was patriotic to dissent. But nonviolent resistance, as I was soon to see, was not for the faint of heart.

In 1968, I shed tears for a world beyond Madison: King the dreamer was murdered in April; Robert F. Kennedy was slain in June.

Looking further back in time, I place King and Kennedy in the historical company of Mary Dyer in 1660, hanged by the Boston Puritans for being a Quaker who broke the ban in Boston. (Puritans hated Quakers.)

They are also in good company with Elijah Lovejoy, the abolitionist newspaper publisher who got murdered by a mob in a Southern Illinois town in 1837.

Dyer is seen as the first American martyr for religious freedom; Lovejoy the first to die for freedom of the press.

The NFL player movement might take heart that Quakers still embraced nonviolence for social change. On the front lines of the abolitionist movement, they pressured Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves. The Underground Railroad was brilliant citizen resistance. The woman suffrage movement leader Alice Paul, a Quaker, went out to the streets to confront President Woodrow Wilson.

Way ahead of their time, they won the day. Resistance may yet save the republic.

As if they heard me writing, I saw two senators hugging on the floor: John McCain, R-Ariz., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. The NFL brotherly spirit is spreading to the Capitol.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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