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Saturday, September 24, 2022

Columns

Protests should result in reform, not ostracism


Kneeling has been the latest mechanism of protesting. With some claiming it is disrespectful to the flag and troops, this is what happens when a future troop does so. | Dana C. Jones/The Cougar

Kneeling during the United States’ national anthem has evolved into an iconic symbol of protest — one that a Sugar Land high school senior has embraced as an important avenue of dissent.

Former JROTC Capt. Elijah Valerio is facing severe repercussions for his choice to kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem at Dulles High School in Sugar Land.

After receiving an ultimatum, Valerio chose to leave the JROTC. His acts of personalized patriotism were squashed by the proxy military JROTC, which in tandem with the broader U.S. military, pushes blanketed hyper-patriotic forms of reverence toward the flag.

Valerio has been removed from JROTC, severed family relationships and faced social isolation as a result of his actions. 

These repercussions demand a proper definition of who is truly a patriot, and Valerio feels he could not claim this title until he had defended the rights of every member of this nation. This meant kneeling for the injustices of the country — abandoning the comfort of his rank friends and risking his reputation within this community.

His decision was not a premeditated one, although he’s been a supporter of the movement since it’s beginning. He felt a sudden compulsion to kneel and gave in to it.

‘Brown forever’

Elijah and I attended the same high school and shared the extracurricular of debate.

Valerio has attended many rallies against police brutality, the Muslim ban and anti-LGBT legislation, but he said he has never faced such backlash before. This is not out of the norm for high school students, but it is a bit of an anomaly for a JROTC student. His classmates, he says, “have yet to acknowledge” the reasons for what he did, but he is treated as something of an outcast now.

He knelt during the Pledge of Allegiance in his homeroom class and found himself, minutes later, in front of his commanding officer in JROTC. When presented with the option to either stand and stay in ROTC or continue kneeling and be removed, he initially decided to stay, but later chose the latter option because his message was more important.

“High school is fleeting,” Valerio said. “Your jobs, your relationships, your world — it all has to end one day, but my identity will last forever. I will be brown forever.”

His decision created tension at home, too. Valerio’s stepmother, a Thai immigrant, responded angrily to Valerio’s particular choice of protest.

“She sees America as some safe haven,” Valerio said. “She thinks I’m a loser because I did this.”

She is willing to suffer the consequences of being a minority in the United States, to pay the “immigrant tax” of fetishization of her native culture and forced assimilation. The heart-wrenching result of Valerio’s decision to kneel is his parents’ despondency and distance.

Valerio faces a hostile atmosphere at school, where many students consider him disrespectful and unpatriotic, as well as threats at home to forsake his college fund.

Race and identity cannot be separated. Being a minority in America means facing constant injustices, being pulled out of line for randomized security checks every time you fly and learning to never wear hoodies at night.

When Valerio says he’s “brown forever,” he means that the shade of his skin casts a shadow of influence over every part of his life, and that, to others, he is inherently unequal.

There is an image of the United States as a place erected in homage to freedom, founded by those persecuted for seeking fundamental rights. These are two mutually exclusive likenesses, seen as different by people that are not directly impacted by the implications.

The dialogue must begin, and it will only be incited by the support of high school seniors, NFL players and lawmakers. 

The sacrifices of protesting 

Valerio, however, has made a real sacrifice for something that he believes in. His protest is not superficial. It has consequences, and people need to know about what he did because he is facing  tangible repercussions. Like countless patriots and freedom fighters before him, Valerio is sacrificing day-to-day convenience for the greater good.

Many look to the flag for hope, refuge and assurance that this country is still the land of the free and the home of the brave.

“It has become a separation point between my family and I, but I will keep kneeling until something changes,” Valerio says.

His parents, people of color, do not perceive these injustices as meriting the consequences of fighting them. This dissonance leaves this young protester suddenly alone and feeling like his actions are a “lost cause.”

Valerio’s actions are beyond admirable in someone so young. Countless athletes and high schoolers with more courage than our president will keep kneeling until there is reform.

This country is so beautiful because it not only allows for protest, but encourages it as an avenue of advancement and evolution. Why are we hindering ourselves from this growth by hesitating to join brave individuals like Valerio?

Staff writer Anusheh Siddique is a political science freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]

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