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BridgeND hosts student debate on kneeling for the American flag

| Thursday, November 30, 2017

BridgeND sponsored a student debate on the notion of kneeling for the American flag Wednesday in the Montgomery auditorium of the LaFortune Student Center.

Titled “Reflections on the Flag,” the hour-long event was centered on a movement that garnered national attention when former National Football League (NFL) quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem in 2016 to peacefully protest racial injustice in America. The student debate featured junior Matt Marsland, who argued against kneeling for the American flag, and senior Geralyn Smith, who took a pro-kneeling stance.

Kelli Smith | The Observer
Junior Matt Marsland, left, and senior Geralyn Smith, right, participate in a BridgeND debate Wednesday about kneeling for the American flag as the moderator, junior Kylie Ruscheinski, center, looks on.

President of BridgeND, junior Christian McGrew, said BridgeND chose the topic of kneeling as the organization’s annual debate to contribute to the broader conversation about what exactly the flag stands for and why people are kneeling in the first place.

“Football is something that touches the consciousness of Americans from all different colors and creeds, especially here at Notre Dame where it is typically a uniter,” McGrew said. “These events have served to divide people instead of being a source of national unification, so I think these questions demand to be answered.”

Marsland and Smith each gave a 10 to 15 minute presentation of their respective viewpoints. After the initial presentation, both were given a chance to respond to each other before answering questions from junior Kylie Ruscheinski, who acted as the moderator, and the audience.

Marsland said he “absolutely agrees” with the cause Kaepernick is advocating through his kneeling during the national anthem. The main conversation, he said, is how the American flag has become directly connected to the ideas of democracy, liberty and justice, and whether or not it is “tactically intelligent” to protest the American flag considering those ideals.

“By questioning the place of the flag, by calling the flag itself and the national symbols into question, it might undermine or diminish the legitimacy of those values themselves,” Marsland said. “… By kneeling, the flag is not necessarily a legitimate sphere for protest because the flag represents those ideals that we should be striving for.”

Considering the majority of Americans view the flag as a symbol of liberty and justice, Marsland said, it would become very easy for the “enemies of justice” to claim the flag as their own and paint “the real patriots” as traitors if the flag becomes a sphere of protest.

“The flag should be kept free of protest [and] free of political debate precisely because the flag should be a weapon for justice,” Marsland said. “It should be a weapon for equality, not a symbol to be taken by those who want to drag this country back into the days of slavery and oppression. The flag should be a symbol of justice.”

Smith, who began her presentation with an outline of a history of injustices against African Americans, said NFL players, more than any other people, have a direct obligation to speak up about the issue since the NFL attracts so much public attention.

“This is the same flag that people salute, then put on their hoods and perform unforgivable acts,” Smith said. “So yes, I respect the flag, I love the flag and I still pledge allegiance to the flag. But I will not reprimand someone for not doing the same.”

Smith said the moment a person’s beliefs infringe on her rights is where the problem arises. Because the flag acts as a safeguard and protection for some people, she said it’s time to tell people the flag may not be as impenetrable as they think and they can’t be allowed to wear it as their bulletproof vest any longer.

“We do want to make people uncomfortable,” Smith said. “I think that’s what important — it’s important to make people feel uncomfortable because, otherwise, change doesn’t happen. Growth happens when you cannot move — when you’re uncomfortable.”

Smith said NFL organizations are so afraid of losing advertising revenue that they are willing to silence their players on an issue that most people wouldn’t acknowledge exists behind closed doors.

“The fact of the matter is that anyone who wants to take the flag and use this example of justice as their own is going to do it,” Smith said. “History has shown us that we cannot stop the same men who rode in their hoods. They brandished that flag. If we haven’t been able to do anything about it, even now in 2017, then maybe we just have to change our tactics.”

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About Kelli Smith

Kelli Smith is a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she served as Editor-in-Chief at The Observer for the 2019-20 term. She is pursuing majors in political science and television with a minor in journalism. // Twitter: @KelliSmithNews

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