On Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence, former governor of Indiana, traveled to Indianapolis to attend a football game between the Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers, but he didn’t even make it to kickoff. Pence left after several 49ers players knelt during the National Anthem. Later he tweeted that he would not, “dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.” But the entire spectacle represented an act of performative outrage likely scripted in advance.
With a nation already so divided over the President Donald Trump’s words and actions — as well as the continued tensions around policing in minority communities — political figures, especially the man who holds the second highest office in the land, should be agents of unity. Even if Pence disagrees with the protests, he does not need to increase the acrimony through a public spectacle that could only elicit further outrage.
Pence left the game Sunday in the midst of an ongoing national debate about the “Take A Knee” movement initiated by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 to protest police brutality. It was likely no accident that Pence happened to attend this Colts game against the 49ers, Kaepernick’s old team. Some of Kaepernick’s former teammates, including Eric Reid, have continued the protest; Reid said of Pence’s actions: “This is PR.”
In a tweet later that afternoon, Pence’s boss, President Trump said, “I asked @VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country,” bolstering conjecture that the walkout was staged, as did the fact that the pool of journalists accompanying Pence was asked to stay in vans outside the stadium. So Pence’s walkout served as a heavy-handed way to stoke his boss’s base.
Even though I agree with the players who are kneeling to protest an unjust criminal justice system, I also support Pence’s right to walk out of a football game. The real issue in the vice president’s actions isn’t free speech. It’s that his performance of outrage is opportunism of the basest and most blatant sort. This political pandering has irrefutably tied Mike Pence to Donald Trump’s brand of belligerency. This walkout clearly demonstrates that Pence is not merely guilty by association, he’s just plain guilty of stirring up further division.
The “Take A Knee” protests have divided football fans, politicians and voters for months. Some see it as a legitimate protest of injustice perpetuated against black people in America. They view the silent, peaceful gesture as part of our First Amendment rights under the Constitution. Others, like Pence and his political supporters, view taking a knee during the national anthem as disrespectful of soldiers and the nation’s ideals.
Kaepernick has said his intention was never to disrespect soldiers. He even discussed his protest with Army Special Forces veteran, Nate Boyer, and they mutually agreed that kneeling would be better than sitting. “We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates,” Boyer says. “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect.”
On top of this, people have questioned how much Pence’s performance of indignation will cost taxpayers. He flew in Air Force Two from Las Vegas to Indiana and back to the West Coast. California Representative Adam Schiff tweeted, “After all the scandals involving unnecessarily expensive travel by Cabinet secretaries, how much taxpayer money was wasted on this stunt?” And those questions are sure to continue in light of other travel cost issues plaguing other high-level Trump administration officials.
Perhaps Pence was still smarting from last May, when students walked out of his commencement speech at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. They were protesting Pence’s alliance with Donald Trump as well as policies concerning immigrants and the LGBTQ community when he was Indiana’s governor.
In his speech at Notre Dame, Pence said, “Far too many campuses across America have become characterized by speech codes, safe zones, tone policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness — all of which amounts to nothing less than suppression of the freedom of speech.” He went on to characterize these actions as “outside the American tradition.”
Since Pence seems so concerned about free speech, why didn’t he acknowledge that football players are free to take a knee — just as Pence is allowed to walk out?
Instead of a pantomime of sober concern, Pence and the Trump administration more broadly could address the real issue — the need for massive reforms in policing and criminal justice. Even now, residents in St. Louis have staged weeks of demonstrations in response to the acquittal of officer, Jason Stockley, in the 2011 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith. Vice President Pence could use his position to promote dialogue in the service of positive change instead of stoking racial and political polarization.
Genuine patriotism means insisting that government and citizens honor the inalienable rights of all people. America still operates with bias against people of color, women, immigrants, and the poor. In countless ways, the current administration has emboldened bigotry and intolerance. The vice president’s walkout — an obvious ploy to rally his political supporters — merely exacerbates these racial and partisan tensions. Mike Pence has failed the American people by stooping to political showmanship instead of rising to embody the nation’s highest ideals — dialogue, pluralism, and free speech.