Rosa Parks on a bus. Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the Olympics. North Carolina A&T students at the Woolworth’s counter. So many before but now we have football players in stadiums. The act of peaceful protest is a major fiber in the tapestry that American history. Unfortunately, some people have forgotten that. There are many people who are vexed, angered, offended, and incensed by the quiet and focused actions giving rise to the issue and spotlight to the issue of police brutality and the African American community.
Ask any middle school scholar and they’ll tell you that the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution secures the individual’s freedom of speech. Freedom of Speech. The term is thrown around like a–pardon the pun–a football but what does it mean? According to the U.S. courts, Freedom of Speech includes but not limited to:
- The right to be quiet (not to salute the flag) – WV Board of Education v. Barnett (1943);
- Students wearing black armbands to protest the war – Tinker v. Des Moines (1969);
- Contribute money to political campaigns – Buckley v. Valeo (1976).
Oh…there’s another one. To engage in symbolic speech like flag burning and taking a knee (1990).
Perhaps the challenge for those who jeer and curse those who participate in silent protest is that they have a problem with the word protest. Rather than send the message of football players protesting would there be more opportunities for understanding if the text was men, who play football, stand up for what they believe is right? This is America. Standing up for what we believe is right is what we do. That’s why we argue with umpires. That’s why we send letters to the editor. That’s why we go to our children’s school to meet with the principal when we believe they are not receiving the proper education.
Loud, boisterous, and brash rhetoric amplify the notion that protesting the status quo is an assault on all we hold dear as a nation. When contemporary dissidents stand up, speak out, sit-in, or kneel, the referenced targets of their discontent are our servicemen and women, Old Glory, or the very constitutional verbiage that invites such action. But this can’t be true. Our society, by the very nature of its capitalistic undergirding, demonstrates that we laud, celebrate, and embrace protest, standing up to the machine, stickin’ it to the man. As it is said, people vote with their dollars and the cinema is our unofficial voting booth. It is proven almost every weekend at the movies. Yes…the movies. There are many, many films which present in realistic and interpretive forms the American value of standing up for what is right no matter the odds. The message is always: Do the Right Thing, Stand and Deliver, Walk the Line with Pride, and to Never Back Down.
From seated positions in darkened spaces with others from all walks of life, clad only with hope and a box of popcorn, we applaud and cheer the images and stories of those who find themselves oppressed, disenfranchised, under-dogged, or under siege from the more powerful and more resourceful. We sit on the edge of our seats as protagonists band together, form alliances, or even, go it alone to face pestilential Philistines whose mantras are summed up in the words of Ivan Drago from Rocky IV: I must break you!
Here are a few reminders that we as Americans really do love, respect, and cherish our First Amendment: speaking up, standing up, and fighting for what’s right. The film Braveheart tells the story of the legendary thirteenth-century Scottish hero named William Wallace who rallies the Scottish against the English monarch. The film grossed 210 million dollars. Five high school students from different walks of life, in The Breakfast Club, endure a Saturday detention under a power-hungry principal (90 million). Rocky tells the ultimate underdog tale of a small-time boxer from working-class Philadelphia, arbitrarily chosen to take on the reigning world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (117 million). Finally, grossing 253 million, the film Erin Brockovich tells of an American legal clerk and environmental activist, who, despite her lack of formal education in the law, was instrumental in building a case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California in 1993.
The box office reflects the hope and admiration for those who risk it all and face the odds in the name of justice, self-determination, and freedom. Collective cheers and ticket sales are the evidence that the underdog and the rag-tag group are who we are, who we aspire to be, and are to be celebrated. Let a Saturday afternoon remind us of that.
Guy A. Sims is the author of the novel, Living Just A Little, and the crime novellas, The Cold Hard Cases of Duke Denim. He is also the head writer of the Brotherman: Dictator of Discipline comic book series and the Brotherman graphic novel, Revelation.