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A soccer team gives us an example of patriotism 

As this dreadful presidential campaign descended into X-rated muck, it’s been a relief to watch an intense local discussion about this country and its principles. And it’s been gratifying to know that the issues were put before us by a group of young people.

This year’s presidential race has been so awful that it’s almost certainly undermining what little respect many Americans still have for government. And it may dampen voter turnout for decades. Watching prominent politicians act the way they’re acting, who could have faith that they’ll help bring about a better country? And who could have faith that ordinary Americans can help bring about change?

Apparently, some Rochester teenagers do.

Earlier this fall, the members of the World of Inquiry soccer team joined numerous other athletes around the country in protest, kneeling during the playing of the national anthem at the start of a game. Their intent, obviously, was to follow the example of San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick, calling attention to the injustices suffered by Americans of color, particularly in the criminal justice system.

It’s no surprise that the local protesting team is from the World of Inquiry, a school whose very mission is to encourage questioning and self-learning. Nor is it a surprise that their protest was controversial. The players have gotten lots of support, particularly from other World of Inquiry students, but they’ve also been accused of disrespecting police officers, the American flag, and the national anthem.

I disagree with those critics, but I understand their concerns. Some veterans, for instance, say they were offended – “hurt” isn’t too strong a word – by the protest. And I’m sure the students are learning from what they’re hearing.

In fact, you can find a thoughtful discussion of the team’s protest on Evan Dawson’s October 4 “Connections” show on WXXI-AM.

The show’s participants were team members Miguel Lopez and James Weh; WOIS student Michael Hunter; Miguel Lopez’s father Michael, who is also the player’s former coach, and Todd Baxter, executive director of the Veterans Outreach Center.

Baxter praised the students but added that when people kneel rather than stand during the national anthem, some veterans will feel it’s an insult.

“We go to war for that flag,” Baxter said. “Our friends’ coffins are draped in that flag. We take it as a very sacred symbol.”

“Nothing,” said Baxter, “is more sacred than that flag and the president.”

Baxter said he supported the team’s right to protest but wished they had done it another way.

“I thank you for everything you’ve done for this country,” responded James Weh. But, he added: “What you and your friends have fought for is what we’re trying to exercise.”

“Nobody knows what we’re thinking when we’re doing it,” said Weh. “Nobody can say that we’re doing it to disrespect veterans.”

“The flag does not just represent the military,” said Michael Lopez. “It represents the country. It’s more disrespectful not to honor the Constitution.”

That kind of discussion is healthy. But other criticism has been ugly. And because the team includes students who are immigrants, attacks have been aimed not only at immigrants but also at Muslims. That behavior is unconscionable. And with a presidential candidate whipping it up, it’ll be hard to tamp down, let alone change.

The rest of us, though, need to stand up for the protesters.

And that needs to start with school district adults. There’s been a bit of talk about having the protests be a teachable moment, but the “teaching” seems aimed only at the students. District officials have suggested that the soccer players should talk with their parents, their teachers, their coach, school administrators before they decided to protest.

District officials say they’re not suggesting that the players should get the adults’ permission to protest. But since the protest would offend some people, they say, they want to make sure the students understand what they’re doing.

That’s an “I support your right to protest, but” attitude.

All of those adults are authority figures. Some students may feel confident that these adults are simply giving them information to consider. Others, undoubtedly, will find that discussion intimidating.

A unique complication to the WOI team’s protest is that some of the players are students at the district’s Rochester International Academy, not World of Inquiry. Many RIA students are recent immigrants, and they, like their parents, are still learning about US government and politics.

As the controversy continued, WOI teacher Kelly LaLonde told me she worries that students have been manipulated from both sides: by district officials who were concerned about the protest and by some team members and parents, encouraging the protest.

Some players who are immigrants, LaLonde said, have told her that they’re afraid they might be denied citizenship because of the protest. Some “come from countries where people disappear in the middle of the night,” she said, “and these kids are afraid there will be repercussions.”

Clearly everybody involved in this particular situation has a lot to learn, students and adults alike. But the adults have an important responsibility now, to help all of the students navigate the results – without warnings and intimidation. And they have a responsibility to applaud the players for taking a stand on one of the vital issues of the day.

“It’s OK to disagree with the kids’ perspective or with the way they protested,” Mike Lopez told me last week. But, he said: “The biggest enemy is apathy. We have a group of kids who do care and are involved and are involving their teammates.”

The World of Inquiry team’s protest was a peaceful, quiet one. In kneeling, the students stood up for the principles and values of the United States. They did it publicly, to call attention to an issue important to them and to all of us. Doing it privately would be meaningless.

They exercised their rights. And they didn’t need adults’ permission – or advance notification – to do it.

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