A parade organized to honor law enforcement, military and first responders before a high school football game sparked harsh criticism from activists who believe the ceremony was nothing but a show of power meant to intimidate the national anthem protesters.
A large number of veterans, military personnel, state and local police units, and surrounding sheriffs and officers attended the parade that honored the Linden police officer wounded in a shootout with Ahmad Khan Rahami, the alleged Elizabeth bomber.
The ceremony, held before a highly anticipated football game between the Middletown South High School and Toms River North High School in New Jersey, drew attention after Deputy Chief Stephen Dollinger said the event was response to athletes taking a knee during the national anthem.
“It's OK to stand up for social justice, inequality and reform,” Dollinger told The Asbury Park Press in a pre-game interview. “It's another thing to not stand up for the national anthem.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey described these comments as “frightening.”
“As initially described, the event appeared to honor police officers, veterans, service members, and first responders,” the ACLU wrote in a letter to the district. “According to press reports, however, the event is being used to intimidate and ostracize people who express their views about systemic racism and social just.”
The national anthem protest, which Dollinger mentioned in his statement, began with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick before spreading throughout the country. Scores of pro and amateur athletes have recorded their stance against police brutality and discriminatory criminal justice system by refusing to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” during games.
“Law enforcement officers are sworn to protect the Constitution, and it is a disservice to the students and players that an event that should focus on them, their families, and their communities is being used to send a message that people who express concerns about disparities in the criminal justice system are unwelcome, disloyal or unpatriotic,” the letter continued.
The Central Jersey Chapter of National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the Greater Long Branch NAACP also endorsed the letter, according to NJ.com.
“Entrance to one of the biggest sporting events in the area should not require that someone accept an atmosphere that suppresses political protest,” said ACLU-NJ organizer Jasmine Crenshaw. "The magnitude of this event chills the belief that police should be held accountable when they abuse their power or discriminate against people of color, and pressures student athletes to act as props of the police.”
Meanwhile, Dollinger, who seems to have changed his tone, now claims that his comments were taken out of context.
“I said we respect the rights of everybody to stand up for social justice and equality and reform, but we also respect our country and want to celebrate the first responders, the national anthem,” he said. “This is just about honoring our country and the men and women of law enforcement and first responders. That's all this is about.”
Trying to discourage someone from protesting abuse of power by means of power is certainly not the right way to go. Not only that, if the ceremony indeed aimed to send some kind of a message, it backfired spectacularly, because all it did was symbolize police officers' refusal to tolerate peaceful protest, unequal treatment and systematic oppression.