Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) finally addressed the controversy surrounding the National Football League protests during a speech at First Congregational Church in Atlanta, Georgia, Sunday.
Harris spoke to the congregation about a divided United States on the 150th anniversary of the second-oldest African-American congregational church in the country. During her speech, the senator directly confronted the controversies surrounding NFL players who are “taking the knee” during the national anthem.
“Let’s speak the truth that when Americans demand recognition that their lives matter, or kneel to call attention to injustice, that that is an expression of free speech, protected by our Constitution, and they should not be threatened or bullied,” Harris said, according to a transcript of the speech given to HuffPost.
Kneeling during the anthem began last year with then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a protest against racial injustice. Kaepernick was using his platform to highlight the disparity between racial divides in the United States and police brutality.
Since then, kneeling has been a controversial protest that some alleged was disrespectful of the military and the American flag. But Kaepernick’s former teammate Eric Reid, who joined him in taking a knee, wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Monday that they chose kneeling, after speaking with a former Green Beret, as a symbol of respect, the way a flag is “flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
President Donald Trump furthered the flames of controversy, however, when calling the players who kneel “sons of bitches” and suggesting fans boycott games at a rally in Alabama. After those remarks, teams began co-opting the movement as a symbol of unity within the football community.
Harris spoke about the anthem as a reminder of the military personnel who died for American freedoms. She also drew parallels to the civil rights era marches that occurred across the country in the 1960s, when black Americans led the demands for equal rights and social change.
“When we sing the Star-Spangled Banner, we also think about those marching in the streets who demand that the ideals of that flag represent them too,” Harris said.