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Young People Grapple With Whether To Follow Colin Kaepernick's Lead


The decision by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to sit during the national anthem has opened many conversations about patriotism, tradition and America's history of racism. Youth Radio's Riley Lockett talked to young people in the Bay Area grappling with their own decisions about whether to stand for the anthem.

RILEY LOCKETT, BYLINE: Seventeen-year-old Garrison Pennington is a hard-core 49ers fan and a self-identified patriot, so his current feelings about quarterback Colin Kaepernick are complicated.

GARRISON PENNINGTON: So I actually found out from my dad, who came from the football perspective of - what is he doing? I don't want to see that happening. This is football. This isn't politics. Stay out of it. And when my dad talked to me about it, at first, I completely agreed with him.

LOCKETT: Garrison says he's the kind of guy who always stands for the flag. But then he noticed how Kaepernick's actions were making people actually talk about important topics, like racism and what it means to be patriotic.

PENNINGTON: You have to have someone who's willing to stand up or, in this case, sit down to bring attention to those issues.

DOMINIC ALTIERI: All right, what's the First Amendment? What does it say?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Pretty much, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of...

LOCKETT: Eighth-grade history teacher Dominic Altieri is also talking about Kaepernick's actions, but in terms of the Bill of Rights.

ALTIERI: This is made for middle school. Yeah, this one is - this is tailor-made for a middle school topic.

LOCKETT: Altieri teaches at Synergy School in San Francisco. For today's discussion, he splits his class into groups with different assignments. Gabrielle Manion, Kaia Levy-Kanenaga and Tomi Osawa are researching the reasons people are mad about Kaepernick sitting out.

GABRIELLE MANION: It's good to, like, put your hand over your heart and stand up, but I don't get why you would have - why do you have to do that at, like, like, a national football game or something?

KAIA LEVY-KANENAGA: Yeah, it makes sense at the Olympics, but we're all in America when we play football.

TOMI OSAWA: And also, a lot of people are mad because they're saying, like, he's disrespecting the military because, you know, they're fighting for his right for freedom of speech.

KAIA: Really just mixed right now. Like, it's just - it doesn't make sense, but it was a good point. Like, what he was saying was good.

LOCKETT: Gabrielle is black. And if she were in Kapernick's shoes...

GABRIELLE: I think I would stand. But, I mean, like, if it gets worse, I don't know.

LOCKETT: I get why she's conflicted. I'm black. And growing up, my mom always made sure I knew the history of black people in America. She made me watch documentaries about slavery, civil rights, police brutality. You get the picture. I'm 15 now. And up to this point, I never really thought about the connection between racism and the national anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance that much. Is it really that big a deal? It is to Amanda Augustin. She's 17 and says she often stands for the flag, only because people get mad when she doesn't. But she won't put her hand on her heart.

AMANDA AUGUSTIN: Or sing or recite the pledge, simply because I don't believe it's true. I believe if I were to say that I live in a country and pledge my allegiance to a country that has liberty and justice for all, then I would be lying.

LOCKETT: Though that doesn't mean she's giving up on her country.

AUGUSTIN: I do believe that, like, it should be love it or fix it. If country is not, you know, doing for you as it should, it doesn't mean you should abandon it. That's not patriotic to me. It's fix it.

LOCKETT: Back in the classroom, the eighth graders are wrapping up their lesson. As they head to lunch, their conversation keeps going about patriotism, racism and police violence. These kids might seem kind of young for such a heavy conversation, but Altieri says, given the world we live in, it's necessary.

ALTIERI: There's sadness that we still have to deal with this, but there's no sadness in someone waking up or someone realizing that things aren't the way they should be.

LOCKETT: The 49ers' first regular-season game is Monday. And with lots of young people watching, Kaepernick says he plans to sit again for the national anthem. For NPR News, I'm Riley Lockett.

CORNISH: And that story was produced by Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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