Monday, September 25, 2017

Standing With Those Who Choose To Not Stand



Well, it's happened: I've lived long enough to see history repeat itself.

And while I don't normally pay much attention to the happenings on the sidelines of most professional sports games and teams, the recent #TakeaKnee controversy has an awfully familiar ring to it.

Back in the winter of 1993, a few months before I was to graduate from Henninger High School in Syracuse, New York, I found myself standing in the hallway of a TV studio located just off of New York City's Times Square. A producer was rounding up a busload of us kids, who'd braved the interstate snow to appear on national television.

"All those who are for the Pledge of Allegiance, stand over here, and all those who are against the Pledge of Allegiance stand over here," she said, splitting us into two opposing factions across the hall from one another.

I stood my ground. "Well, it's not a matter of for or against," I complained, as my classmates shuffled into their respective queues.

"Just pick one," another crew member wearing a headset barked, and so I got in the "against" line.

I, of course, had been dutifully reciting the pledge for as long as I could remember. I hadn't formulated any opinions against it because I was just robotically following the lead of the voice that had been coming across the school loudspeaker for years on end.

Until, one day, it didn't. And I noticed.

And that's how Henninger High School ended up getting its own episode of the popular 1990s daytime talk show The Montel Williams Show—and how I ended up not only on air, but on stage.

During the class year of 1992-3, I'd taken up the baton of "teen reporter" for the local Syracuse city newspaper, The Herald-Jounal, after my older sister had vacated the position upon graduating a year ahead of me. Most of the articles were pretty mundane—covering some football win or school play or awards ceremony—but I decided to investigate why the loudspeaker had gone silent in the morning.

And I cracked open quite a case—enough to elevate my story from the high school column all the way up to the news desk, enough for the news editor to call the school office and pull me out of class to do some additional reporting, and enough for the article to land on the front page of the Sunday paper, .

The headline read:

PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE SUSPENDED AT HENNINGER HIGH 
BECAUSE OF ETHNIC SLURS 

And that juicy bit of news was enough to catapult the story into the national spotlight via the Associated Press.

Papers all over the country read about what had been happening in our small city classrooms. According to our Principal Peter Kavanagh, the article said, "It became very, very divisive between kids who stand for the pledge and those who don't... The African-American kids perceive it as a philosophical issue."

And there it was, in black and white.

That is, the white kids in school were largely, the ones who did stand to recite the Pledge, as well as those who called out the less privileged students who didn't for literally getting a "free lunch" while at school.

Teachers had begun to complain to the administration about the tensions they were witnessing, which were getting pretty heated—and, not knowing what else to do, our principal tried to defuse the racial debate by removing the catalyst altogether.

To some, I was a hero for writing that article. To others, I was a troublemaker and a traitor. Life was already pretty hard for me both in school and at home—and, that January, it got even harder.

And that's when the calls from talk shows began to pour in. Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael, Montel Williams... they were all clamoring to put us on their respective shows.

Of course, I threw my journalistic integrity out the window and dove head-first into the political debate, arguing about the meaning of free speech and reminding those who were in an uproar that saying the Pledge of Allegiance may be a privilege, but it's not a requirement or an obligation.

Both the Supreme Court and the New York State education law of the time agreed on that—and they still do.

And while the First Amendment covers the right to speak freely—including to voice criticism of the government—it also covers the right to not speak, whether it's in protest or just because you don't feel like it. (And, thanks to the Fifth Amendment, you don't even have to incriminate yourself.)

Like the kneeling of professional athletes during the National Anthem, the big issue with the Pledge of the Allegiance wasn't so much the utterance of those particular words in that particular order, but the sitting as opposed to standing.

"Probably 70 percent of the kids just stand and talk to their neighbor when it's said in school," the article quoted Andrew Messer, commander of the neighborhood's American Legion Post, as saying at the time. "It's the same thing you see when they play the National Anthem at any ballpark. It's unfortunate, but that's how people think these days."

Well, 1993 turns out to be a lot like 2017.

Backstage at the TV studio, I caught an early glimpse at what was to become the "shock" programming of talk shows with controversial subjects and attention-grabbing guests—something we'd started to see with The Morton Downey, Jr. Show in the late '80s and The Maury Povich Show in the early '90s, but that wouldn't come to full fruition until The Jerry Springer Show would have a few more years under its belt.

In the battle of "for" versus "against" the Pledge of Allegiance on The Montel Williams Show, the producers had split the guests on the stage into two sections—one that was starkly white, and one that was deceptively black.

In truth, no one in the audience on the "for" side was black. But there were non-minority students on the "against" side—they just hadn't been put on the stage.

And one of them was me.

When our class president at the time had been placed on the stage and looked around her—clearly picking up on the narrative that was about to emerge, based on color palette alone—she pointed to me in the audience section and declared that I needed to get up on the stage.

And, from that point forth, I was no longer objective.

Up there, cameras rolling, I pleaded with my fellow classmates in the audience and across the other side of the stage—as well as with the viewers at home—to understand that this was not the way to instill a sense of patriotism in today's youth. And, considering how much the rest of us always mumbled our way through the Pledge, just saying it every day did not make us patriots.

In fact, I said, I didn't even know anything about the history of the Pledge of Allegiance or its intended meaning until I read a sidebar that ran alongside the article I wrote for the city paper. (According to that, the word "God" wasn't added until 1953, and students used to give a military salute to the flag, rather than putting their right hands over their hearts.)

For me, I love singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." I just love the song—as a piece of music. It's not like any of us born in the 1970s or later know a thing about "the rocket's red glare" or "the bombs bursting in air." We're lucky to have been spared those things.

But if someone wants to respectfully and quietly kneel down during the performance of our national anthem to make a statement, that seems quintessentially American to me.

Let's exercise our right to protest! And let's make it count—let's make our actions shine a light on the injustices and the discriminations of our country.

Don't stand up, take your hat off, and then drunkenly blather on about this or that while spilling beer on the row in front of you.

But if you do, that's your right, too.

In both cases, not everybody has to like it. We can disagree with each other's choices. We can even engage in spirited debate to try to understand the other side and make them understand our side.

And then move on. Because whether you stand, sit, or kneel doesn't really matter. What is absolutely essential is what you do when the music stops playing.

Related Posts:
A Missed Calling
Singing for My Survival