Colin Kaepernick is starting a conversation across the country that transcends the NFL, or even sports. Is it un-American to protest national symbols, like the pledge and the national anthem? Or is the act of protest itself inherently patriotic? One student who sat during the pledge has found support, despite having her grade lowered by her teacher.
Leilani Thomas, a Native American Lower Lake, California high school student has sat during the pledge of allegiance in protest since she was in the second grade, according to WFAA-TV. It was her way of demonstrating, sitting there silently and acknowledging that, to her family, the pledge represented oppression of her people. And she never had any trouble. Until recently.
Just recently, one of Leilani's instructors at Lower Lake High School reportedly became upset when Thomas sat during the pledge in her class at the start of the school year. “She told me I was being disrespectful and I was pretty mad,” Leilani told KXTV. “She was being disrespectful to me also, saying I was making bad choices, and I don’t have the choice to sit during the pledge.”
The teacher subsequently lowered Leilani's participation grade. Luckily for the student, the superintendent wasn't having it.
"They have the same rights when they walk into the schoolhouse than anybody else does," Konocti School District Superintendent Dona Becnel said, according to The Daily Mail. Leilani was switched to a different teacher where she would be free to sit during the pledge.
Fox News reported that the teacher was being "punished" for "standing up for her country." The report noted that the teacher would be "disciplined" but didn't elaborate further.
Of course Leilani has the right to sit during the pledge. Of course Kaepernick has the right to protest police-involved shootings of black men, women, and children. It's a silent, powerful gesture with ripple effects running across sports, entertainment and news, and even starting to impact our school kids. Maybe that's a good thing.
Protest has been a part of America since it was just an idea. The very founding of our country was an act of protest against the English Monarchy. From the Boston Tea Party in 1773 to Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, to Women's Rights to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter—protest is woven into the fabric of our democracy. Protest is what keeps our rigid system, ever changing, modern and more inclusive.
I would argue that Leilani and Kaepernick are far more patriotic than others might believe. Patriots throughout time have taken risks to make our country better. Patriots stand up and call out injustice where they see it, because they believe our country is great enough and strong enough to change.
Lowering Leilani's grade or forcing her to repeat a pledge she doesn't believe in won't change her mind or anyone else's. Besides, protest is what Americans do. And history remembers them more kindly than those who sought to stand in the way of progress. Leilani won't be the last kid to take a seat during the pledge. We might as well find a way to make it a teachable moment instead of a fight.