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Allowing Protest Fuels Freedom Of Opinion

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It's not just NFL players. All of the U.S. is protesting.

Beginning with the record-breaking Women's March on Washington one day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, large-scale protests and opinions on those protests have been thrust into the nation's eye.

Americans are split down the middle on whether they agree or disagree with NFL players' decisions to take a knee during the national anthem, according to a CNN poll conducted by market research firm SSRS. The opinions were skewed based on demographics, such as race, age and political affiliation, though the majority of supporters consisted of racial minorities, young people and those on the left of the political spectrum.

Regardless of where they stood, 6 in 10 Americans said it was wrong of Trump to speak out against the NFL for allowing players to express their views. This belief was closely aligned to whether the people being surveyed felt that kneeling during the national anthem violated or represented the freedoms of the anthem itself.

Although it may not feel like it, choosing to support, condemn or remain neutral about the players' actions is a way of asserting one's opinion, which is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. All forms of civil protest, regardless of whether you agree with them or not, demand a response. Doing nothing is not an option. Your opinion is a civil right. Staying silent is a stance.

The First Amendment also allows us to express those opinions through peaceful demonstration. Regardless of whether you agree with them, the NFL players who knelt were asserting this right.

The controversy over the national anthem protests at NFL games is undoubtedly intertwined with issues over race and politics, but it is also indicative of a larger issue over what constitutes "acceptable protest."

Take the Women's March. According a report by The Hill, zero arrests took place even though more protesters turned out than ever before. Granted, the Women's March was genuinely nonviolent.

Protests in St. Louis on Sept. 17 did not go as smoothly. The third night of demonstrations over the acquittal of white police officer Jason Stockley in the 2011 shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith resulted in more than 80 people being arrested after some of the protesters broke windows and damaged planters and trash cans, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

In addition to arresting those who became disruptive and violent, police later used a tactic called "kettling" to surround and trap 100 protesters at an intersection after some of them refused orders to disperse. The method resulted in several pedestrians, peaceful protesters, reporters and observers, getting caught in the police barricade.

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"Whose streets? Our streets," the police reportedly changed, appropriating protesters' chants.

The officers were later accused of using pepper spray and batons to prevent people from leaving the intersection.

The difference in arrests and violence at each protest demonstrate there is a disparity in what protesters and police deem as acceptable. In a nationwide protest of 3 million, every single person at the Women's March was deemed "lawful" simply because no one who aligned with the movement they represented dared to raise a fist.

On the other hand, protesters in St. Louis had already shown they were capable of being violent by the time police began to make arrests. In that case, the actions of a select few tainted the entire protest, resulting in peaceful protesters and the people who wanted to hear their message being shut down.

If entire movements were judged on the actions of a select few, then few peaceful demonstrations would have a right to operate, and no one would be able to form their lawful opinion about a matter. Would it be right, in that case, to ask the NFL players not to stand? If they hadn't, would you still know where you stood?

Sources: CNN, The Hill, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (2) / Featured Image: NateVenture/Flickr / Embedded Images: Ragesoss/Wikimedia Commons, Rama/Wikimedia Commons

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