Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School Board of Education members Craig Foster and Oscar de la Torre chose to kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the board meeting last Thursday night.
Their protest of the pledge has brought the national discussion surrounding police conduct when interacting with black Americans into the local dialogue here in Malibu.
For Foster, Malibu’s local representative, the protest was important for many reasons.
“At the first level, clearly it’s not acceptable these young men are dying in this way. At the second level, we’re fighting really hard in our school district to create conditions where every child has equal access to the benefits of the education we have to offer,” Foster said. “The final piece is, there’s a bunch of flak about, ‘How dare people kneel during [the] Star Spangled Banner?’ I find that completely bankrupt. If you want to kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance, that’s your right.”
The protests began with San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who originally chose to sit during the Star-Spangled Banner. A former Green Beret advised Kaepernick to kneel instead of sitting so he could show respect for current military serviceman while continuing his protest.
Kaepernick’s ongoing protest is polarizing the nation. He’s received support from activist groups but has also been booed during games.
“It’s a national debate that we have to have in our own communities,” de la Torre, a Santa Monica representative and community activist, said.
Foster and de la Torre said their protest was not directed at the school district, but many of the issues, such as the achievement gap, work “in harmony” with their work as elected officials.
The two hope other government officials partake in the protest but they recognize it may be difficult for some.
“I think the thing that keeps people from kneeling is that they’re concerned about this issue of disrespect for the Pledge or the Star Spangled Banner, but to me that’s what those rituals enshrine — not only the permission, but almost the requirement, to make sure we speak powerfully about important things,” Foster said.
When Foster lived in Chicago, he experienced the American Nazi Party attempting to organize a march through predominantly Jewish neighborhoods during the 1970s.
The marches were harshly criticized, but the American Civil Liberties Union defended the American Nazi Party’s right to march under First Amendment rights. The party never held its march, opting instead to hold a rally in downtown Chicago, but Foster remembered the event as a lesson on free speech.
“If that speech is protected, I sure as hell can kneel for liberty and justice for all,” Foster said.
There has only been one school board meeting since the two began their protest, but neither has said what would cause them to end their demonstration.
“I’ll know it when I see it,” Foster said. “I don’t think that particular issue is going to solve itself quickly.”
“I think I’ll be kneeling for the rest of my life,” de la Torre said. “We need a new level of consciousness. We need our elected officials to take the knee.”
As a father, Foster also keeps in mind how his actions may be influencing the younger generation.
“My daughter has developed a strong conscience as part of the work she’s been doing in school,” Foster said. “I want her to know that her father took a stand when the times needed people to take that stand.”
Foster continued to say all officials are free to express their First Amendment rights, including continuing to stand and say the Pledge if they want to.