Alfonse D'Amato

Wrapped up in the flag


When I see professional athletes silently protesting during the national anthem, a few things come to mind for me. First is that these privileged and highly paid people have more to be thankful for than to complain about. They are, after all, living the American dream, well rewarded for their achievement. It seems to me that their disrespect of the flag, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and what these national symbols represent is not the right way to protest whatever shortcomings the nation has.

I think back to the great civil rights movement of the 1960s, and recall the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not rejecting the values embodied in the anthem and the flag, but embracing them. King appealed to our national conscience, and challenged us to find the best in our people and institutions. The overwhelming majority of Americans eventually supported the civil rights movement.

It’s easy to forget that when the great civil rights acts came before Congress, they passed with bipartisan majorities. Those historic bills wouldn’t have become law without Republicans’ votes, especially in the Senate. It took courage on all sides to expand the boundaries of freedom and justice for all.

That’s why I reject the unnecessarily divisive approach that athletes like Colin Kaepernick have taken. This all began with the San Francisco 49ers quarterback trotting onto the field for a game wearing socks depicting policemen as pigs, and then taking a knee during the national anthem. He said he was protesting police shootings of young black men. But by showing such disrespect for law enforcement, and snubbing the anthem that all Americans should embrace no matter their political views, Kaepernick undercut the message he claims he was trying to send.

Now, to be clear, his protests were protected by the U.S. Constitution. And they’re not new. At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the American gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter dash, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised black-gloved fists in protest during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Much as we may hate to see it, even flag burning is protected by the Bill of Rights. The irony is that these protesters all dissed the very political system that protects their fundamental rights.

The other thing that comes to mind for me is that we should see these protests, no matter how misguided, as an opportunity to have a candid conversation about race relations in our time. I, too, have seen the televised images of the police shootings of young, unarmed black men, and they are indeed painful to watch. But I’ve also seen the shootings of police, and the regular slaughter of young blacks by other blacks, and I wonder whether the fear and violence isn’t contagious, infecting all sides in these troubled neighborhoods.

This is a time not to just take a knee, but to lock arms as a country. We must dig into the root causes of violence in our minority communities, including the seemingly pervasive despair and the lack of hope there. And we must better train our police forces to help manage their fear and emotion when they are confronted by young black suspects. The goal of law enforcement should always be to de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation, and to use deadly force only as a last resort.

But we must also ask the hard questions about what drives some young black men, especially, to gravitate toward gratuitous violence, where it seems the first resort is to pull a gun and fire. A perceived slight, a wrong hand signal, even a rival gang jacket or a pair of shoes can trigger a shooting. On Long Island, some of our minority neighborhoods have become like armed camps, the situation made worse by the arrival of gangs like MS13.

When police confront dangerous situations created by these young thugs, they put their lives on the line. And when they’re told to drop policing tools like stop-and-frisk, in which they try to get illegal guns away from young men before they can be used in a crime, police are more likely to either step back from patrolling in certain minority neighborhoods or, if threatened, to draw their weapons first, thereby increasing the potential for violence. That’s the reality the police face on the streets, and it’s something we all must try to understand.

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I believe we should ask even the most difficult questions about these troubling issues. And rather than pointing fingers at one another, let’s aim for some real progress in race relations. Let’s work to try to make things better, especially by improving educational and employment opportunities in minority communities. Now is the time for the nation to come together to make real progress, and to rise above politics.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column?