Most of the talk about Colin Kaepernick and his idea to sit down during the national anthem has been negative in the extreme. I saw a video on Facebook in which a man, thought of by other Facebookers as a zealous American patriot, burned a Kaepernick jersey as our great Star Spangled Banner plays in the background.
I suppose I can understand the feeling this particular kind of sit-down engenders among some of our more patriotic citizens, especially in this time when the freedoms we enjoy are under attack by various terror groups and/or others who are apparently suffering from one or more forms of mental illness.
Unfortunately, for reasons I shall explain, my opinion of these so-called patriots who wish to silence Kaepernick is that they are in fact traitors to our most proud traditions.
I’m a fairly patriotic sort myself. I have always gotten chills when I hear our great national anthem, I always have, even back in the 1960s, when it was fashionable among a certain segment of the population close to my age (teenagers and young adults) to burn the flag and head for Canada or fake various disabilities or take advantage of certain higher education deferments rather than risk being drafted and therefore required to fight in a war in the Republic of Vietnam, which a lot of them said they saw as “unjust” or “unjustified,” and which was admittedly a very dangerous war. We lost almost 60,000 soldiers, sailors and Marines in that war, which dragged on for about 20 years.
Me, I was the opposite. I believed it was in our best interest to fight the dirty communists in every corner of the globe, just as President John F. Kennedy and then his successor, Lyndon Johnson, commanded. One of the images I carried was a scene I watched on television that occurred on a street in a country that at the time was called Hungary, which had been overrun by the Soviets in 1956. Soviet tanks and planes mowed down citizens of Hungary that disagreed with the Soviet takeover, and this bothered me a great deal. (You can see the scene and others like it on YouTube.)
So against the advice of my closest advisor (my father), I volunteered to get into the U.S. Marines. I figured that would guarantee me a shot at getting into the war as soon as possible.
Well, as an old poet once said, the best-laid plans don’t always work out the way we expect. So instead of being shipped to Vietnam, the Marine Corps thought it best that I remain stationed in, of all places, Southern California, where, as the Beach Boys told it, there existed “two girls for every boy.” So that’s where I more or less lounged for the next three years.
Now some people might have been very happy with this situation, but not me. I was itching to get into that damn war. So with only one year left on my four-year hitch, I hunted around and found a unit that was headed for Vietnam. In early 1968, I volunteered to join that squadron and lucky for me, they gobbled me up. So on August 28, 1968 (you don’t forget days like this), I climbed aboard an Air Force C-141 and left the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro, California, headed for the Republic of Vietnam. I remained in Vietnam for the next year, ducking rockets and other hazards, morning, noon and night.
Now a lot of people hated the Vietnam War, and I’ve got to admit, in retrospect it wasn’t the greatest idea we, as a nation, ever had. But I didn’t know that at the time, and anyway, I wasn’t fighting for or against that war specifically, I was fighting for the stuff I learned about in grade school, the great rights we have as a nation, such as the right to say what we want and not have to worry about being shut up by the government, or killed in the street as I had seen in the films from Hungary.
(Maybe some of my younger readers might have missed it, but if you want to see a graphic example of how it works in some other countries, check out the Tiananmen Square Massacre, where thousands of Chinese people were killed when they decided to hold a protest in the capital city of China. You’ll have no trouble finding this also on You Tube. I hope you don’t have trouble with seeing blood, and a lot of it).
So now we fast forward to 2016, and this football player, who is obviously a fairly high profile individual, decides he’s going to “make a statement” by refusing the stand for the national anthem.
And the answer that I’m hearing, although it’s sometimes couched in rather vague language, is well, we don’t like it when you refuse to stand for our most precious song and frankly it would not bother us a bit if you lose your job, get kicked off the team and basically get run out of town as quickly as possible.
This reaction makes me angry as hell, and here’s why.
I put my life on the line when I volunteered to go to Vietnam for the sole purpose of preserving the United States Constitution that guarantees Colin Kaepernick the right to say whatever he wants whenever he wants, and that includes sitting down when everybody else is standing up in honor of this great country and this great flag.
See, it’s his RIGHT, dammit, that I and thousands of other Americans have fought for to NOT STAND UP. It’s speech, pure and simple, and if people don’t have that figured out after more than 200 years of living in and learning about democracy and being protected by the United States Constitution, when will they ever learn?
And when people don’t respect it, when they want to kill the Kaepernicks of the world, do they know what they’re saying to the thousands of Marines and soldiers and sailors who died on the beaches of Normandy, fighting for that constitution? Do they not understand that they are disrespecting those men who died fighting against the ideas of Nazi Germany, or on the beaches of Tarawa and Iwo Jima and Guam and Guadalcanal? Do they have any idea that when they vote to shut up Colin Kaepernick, they say to those great American heroes, “We don’t like that principle you fought for and we wish it didn’t exist because people shouldn’t have the right to sit?”
Something I heard back when I worked at The Tampa Tribune seems apt. We used to say, never put the First Amendment up for a vote. It will surely lose. On days like this, I have to believe that is a true statement of the state of our union.
Rather than condemning Kaepernick, we should condemn those who want to silence him because those are the people who would support the massacre in Tiananmen Square, those are the people that, next time, will be in favor of silencing you, or your children, or me.
I consider myself extremely lucky that I retain the right to pen these words and repeat and repeat and repeat: Disagree with him if you want, but celebrate Colin Kaepernick’s right to say what he wants, rejoice that you live in a country where he is allowed to say it without being shut up or jailed or killed. Real American patriots should stand up and salute the flag when the band plays the national anthem, and they should also cheer Colin Kaepernick’s right to sit down.
Joseph J. Registrato is a journalist and lawyer. He was a news reporter, assistant city editor, city editor and assistant managing editor of The Tampa Tribune from 1971 to 1987. After graduation from Stetson College of Law, he was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1989, and was an assistant state attorney with the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office from 1989 through 1991. He was in the private practice of law for more than twenty years in the areas of family law, criminal defense and appellate practice. He is now an assistant public defender at the Hillsborough County Public Defender’s Office of Julianne Holt. He is a U. S. Marine Corps veteran and served in the conflict in the Republic of Vietnam in 1968-1969. Registrato is a contributing editor of AliveTampaBay.com.