As Colin Kaepernick continues his national anthem protest, one seemingly unlikely group is coming forward in support of the San Francisco 49ers second string quarterback – veterans who hope to show the country that his freedom to protest is exactly what they risked their lives to defend.
By refusing to stand during the singing of the national anthem, Kaepernick has been accused of being unpatriotic and disrespectful toward active duty service members and veterans. Veterans For Peace, a national organization made up of military veterans and military members, released a statement on Thursday in support of Kaepernick and the criticism he has faced.
“To question his patriotism and use smear tactics to quiet him is in direct contradiction to the spirit of the right to freedom of expression,” the statement reads. “His act of protest is a political act to register his discontent with the actions of his government. It is a nonviolent act that demands positive change for a better future for all of us. It is exactly the kind of speech the First Amendment was designed to protect and as veterans we applaud his use of his rights for the cause of equality and justice; rights and ideals that we are told we served to defend.”
The statement goes on to condemn police shootings of unarmed people, as well as unfair treatment of other minority groups, such as immigrants, the LGBTQ community and Muslim and Native Americans. Veterans For Peace also condemns the United States government’s handling of issues including homelessness and unemployment.
“Veterans For Peace supports Kaepernick’s right to freedom of expression. We applaud his choice to exercise that right and call on others with high visibility to speak out and take action in various ways for peace and justice and demand a fair and just national response to address these and many other critical issues faced by people both here in the U.S. and abroad,” the statement ends.
Michael McPhearson, Executive Director of Veterans For Peace, individually spoke in support of Kaepernick.
“I am a veteran,” he said. “I have refused to stand for the national anthem. When I do, I do not salute or place my hand on my heart. Racism affects every system of government to the wars we fight abroad to the senseless deaths of black youth at the hands of police. I stand solemnly with my head down at parade rest reflecting on all the unjust acts my nation is doing to people both at home and abroad.”
Other veterans have voiced their support for Kaepernick as well. Just days after Kaepernick went public with his protest and his reasons behind it, a new hashtag – #VeteransForKaepernick – emerged on social media. The hashtag was the number one trending topic on social media for days, with veterans voicing their support for Kaepernick and his efforts to raise awareness about social injustice and police brutality.
“I served for EVERYONE’S freedom. Don’t presume to speak for me. I got this. #VeteransForKaepernick,” said Twitter user @emeraldjaguar, attaching a photo of herself in her Navy uniform.
“I’d never try to shame someone with ‘patriotism’ in order to silence their 1st amend right. #VeteransForKaepernick,” tweeted @BrandonTalks.
With a simple click on the hashtag, thousands of tweets from veterans supporting Kaepernick can be seen. Though some claim they may not agree with Kaepernick, all respect his right to speak his mind.
“I may not agree with Kaepernick. But I agree that I defended everyone’s freedom of speech #VeteransForKaepernick,” said Twitter user @Antonio_Ramir3z.
In Turlock, Veterans of Foreign Wars member Wardee “Gunner” Bruce said that local veterans’ reactions to Kaepernick’s protest have been mixed.
“I’ve got some members in my post that are wanting to kill him because they don’t believe what he’s saying,” said Bruce. “They figure it’s disrespectful to all of those who served. It’s not disrespectful – he is trying to emphasize a point.”
Bruce served in the US military from 1962 until 1992 and fought in both the Vietnam and Desert Storm Wars. As a veteran, he fully supports Kaepernick’s right to protest.
“Everyone thinks the flag is a symbol,” he said. “It is a symbol for veterans like me who were willing to give their lives for it. If you look at the position Kaepernick’s taking, it’s not being disrespectful to the flag; it’s being disrespectful to what’s going on around him and I’m proud of him for that.”
Bruce also praised Kaepernick for his recent announcement that he will be donating all proceeds from his jersey sales, which have skyrocketed to the top of the NFL’s sales list to underserved communities. In addition, Kaepernick has pledged a $1 million donation to charities that aid communities in need. His message has not fallen upon deaf ears, either, as the 49ers have pledged to donate another $1 million to a pair of Bay Area groups to address various social inequities.
As Kaepernick’s protest resonates with veterans, the message has also caught the attention of the White House. Obama said Monday that he had no doubt that the San Francisco 49ers quarterback is sincere and "cares about some real, legitimate issues." He also said approvingly that Kaepernick has generated more national conversation about "issues that need to be talked about.”
"He's someone who also realizes there's many issues that need to be addressed and need changing in this country," Kaepernick said Wednesday. "I think a lot of the initial shock of what the protest was about and the kind of significance of that was lost in the action and the message wasn't really addressed. I think that was great that he came out and supported the message that we do need to make changes in these areas."
For Bruce, Kaepernick is exercising the rights that he fought to protect.
“If he’s making a statement, that’s his privilege,” he said. “How long it lasts is up to him.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.