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New NFL rules won’t silence fight for justice

Ayanna Pressley

If the NFL thinks it can silence players who speak their conscience with a new anthem-protest policy, it should take a look back at history.

Americans just observed Memorial Day to commemorate those who have fought and died for our basic rights, including our First Amendment right to free speech and peaceful protest.

We must not let President Trump, Commissioner Goodell or the NFL owners conflate this issue as being un-American or disrespectful to the flag and military. Players who take a knee during the national anthem do so to protest injustice across the country — fulfilling a patriotic duty to never accept injustice, but to call it out when we see it.

“Don’t get it confused,” wrote former New England Patriot Chris Long on Twitter. “These owners don’t love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it.”

He’s right. The players are bringing to light issues like police brutality, systemic racism and economic inequality. Regardless of your opinion on these matters, the ability to peacefully protest is fundamentally American. That their willingness to do so makes some uncomfortable is entirely the point. We should be uncomfortable with the growing gaps in our society, and we cannot allow ourselves to become desensitized to these injustices.

Multiple studies, and a recent Boston Globe Spotlight series on race, have proven that our district is one of the most unequal in the country.

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick sought to bring to light long-entrenched issues worthy of both attention and change. He has since been blacklisted by the NFL for his stance, but he has not been silenced. Instead, he has inspired countless others with his message.

Elected leaders must do more than just acknowledge that systemic racism, economic inequality and the achievement gap exist. We must actively work to interrupt these patterns of discrimination. We must focus on effective legislative solutions to tackle disparities at their root, where they continue to choke at the promise of yet another generation.

These issues are part of my lived experience, and they’re not mine alone. Too many of us know the heartache of being separated from our mothers, fathers, daughters or sons.

I know that we need real and informed leadership on criminal justice reform at the federal level, to end the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately impacts black and brown families.

We need bail reform and to eliminate mandatory minimums. We must ensure incarcerated individuals are accurately counted in the census, and we must use restorative justice for successful family reunification and federally-funded and gender-informed reentry programming.

We need common-sense gun control, and must treat it as the public health crisis that it is. We need to go even further and demand federal support for communities experiencing trauma.

We need greater accountability, not less, for police officers. This means enacting reforms that ensure the police are here to protect and serve our residents and not forcefully arrest, profile or deport them.

I recently joined 200 leaders of color, millennials, and grassroots activists at the historic Museum of African American History in Boston to talk with them about these issues.

During that gathering, I brought up the words that Frederick Douglass spoke 150 years ago in that same room: “Here we are today, contending for what we thought we gained years ago.”

Douglass was referring to freedom of speech in 19th-century America, but his words could easily be applied to the nation we see before us today. The reason we face these inequalities is because we have the same leadership that has not made solving them a priority.

If Democrats take back Congress in 2018, it will be our party’s responsibility to tackle the enormous challenges we face in earnest, but even if Democrats remain in the minority, it is not an excuse to take our ball and go home.

Ayanna Pressley is a Boston city councillor at large and candidate for the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District. Learn more at www.AyannaPressley.com.