In the month since Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers quarterback, first chose to remain seated during the American national anthem, news feeds around the world have been flooded with opinions as to whether or not his mode of protest was ‘unpatriotic.’ What should have been the focus instead were the issues he is protesting: racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality.

The answer to these debates is quite simple. Sitting or kneeling during the anthem is not illegal, nor is it against NFL rules. In fact, Kaepernick’s protest is perfectly in line with American values: it acknowledges the anthem as being representative of the values the United States claims to uphold. Therefore, attempts to discredit or even to stop his protests are reminiscent of the kind of militarism the US frowns upon when turning its gaze to other countries.

It is interesting to look at situations in which protests have been framed in a similar manner in other democratic countries. It is also important to address the implications this has for protesters living in these countries.

Kanhaiya Kumar, a student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, was arrested on charges of sedition under section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code. This section was originally part of the sedition laws implemented by the British during colonial rule; it was meant to restrict speech or conduct that incited people to rebel against the authority of the monarch.

The law, in this case, was used by the Delhi police to accuse Kumar of raising anti-India slogans at a student rally protesting the hanging of a Kashmiri separatist convicted of terrorism charges.

The slogans in question included, but were not restricted to, a call for the Indian government to recognize the struggle of Kashmiri people for their democratic right to self-determination. Given that Kashmir is currently involved in a controversial boundary dispute between India and Pakistan, the government and many of its right-wing supporters twisted the protests in such a way that they were framed not in terms of opposition to human rights violations, but as opposition to India as a country.

Despite the fact that Kumar denied saying anything against the integrity of the country and reaffirmed his faith in the Indian constitution, he was kept in police custody until he was granted interim bail for six months. The Vice-Chancellor of the university responded by forming a disciplinary committee and academically debarred Kumar and seven other students after receiving an initial investigation report, despite later discovering that the slogans in question had in fact been raised by a group of outsiders in masks.

It is easy to dismiss Kumar’s experience as incomparable to Kaepernick’s on the basis that it occurred in a country that does not enjoy the freedoms we do in Canada or the United States. Yet, India is a democracy that upholds values such as social, economic, and political justice, and the liberty of thought, expression, and belief. The situations of Kumar and Kaepernick are very similar in the sense that they are both accused of being unpatriotic while attempting to speak up for marginalized people in their countries.

In other words, the threat of being persecuted on accusations of anti-nationalist protests is not rare, even in democratic countries.

This possibility was what caused much of the dissent to the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015, otherwise known as Bill C-51, introduced by the Conservative government at the time. The bill aimed to stop “terrorist propaganda” and increase the sharing of federally held information about activity that “undermines the security of Canada.”

The government at the time insisted that the legislation was not meant to restrict methods of protest. However, many feared that it would instead be used to restrict protesters opposed to petroleum projects, as well as Indigenous groups fighting to protect their land and water.

Joanna Kerr, Executive Director of Greenpeace Canada, points to a recent leak of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police intelligence report that addresses “threats to the Canadian Petroleum Industry” to show how even the most democratic modes of protest can be framed as threats to national security.

Kaepernick’s protests have likewise been framed as unpatriotic by people who adopt these arguments in an attempt to silence legitimate protest. Broadcasters and fellow footballers have argued that, while Kaepernick’s concerns may be valid, his methods are inappropriate.

Not only is this infantilizing, but it perpetuates the idea that others — especially those who have not experienced the injustice that Kaepernick is protesting — have the right to determine when and how someone gains the freedoms they are supposed to be entitled to under the United States Constitution. Framing the debate in terms of anti-patriotism is a great and bitter irony.

When questioned about recent backlash and even death threats that he has received in response to his protest, Kaepernick responded, “There’s a lot of racism disguised as patriotism in this country. And people don’t like to address that. And they don’t like to address what the root of this protest is.” This was never about the way Kaepernick protested but rather about what he was protesting.

We should be wary of the patriotism card being used as an argument against protestors of governments; supposedly national values are often twisted to reaffirm rights for a select few in any given society. Furthermore, labelling a protest as unpatriotic can have serious repercussions for protesters, as exemplified by the way both Kaepernick and Kumar have been treated.

No protest ever has, or ever will, garner complete public acceptance — indeed, protests are disruptive by nature. What should be clear in such cases, however, is that accusations of anti-patriotism are not valid responses to democratic protests.

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