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Brainerd Seniors process pass the cheering students on the decorated second floor of Orchard Knob Elementary. The 2016 graduating class of Brainerd High School walked through the halls of Orchard Knob Elementary in their caps and gowns, as a representation of the "vision" for where the elementary students will one day be.

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Brainerd High is America

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David Cook

Don't you see?

Colin Kaepernick is America, too.

Protest has always been part of who we are. Dumping tea. Greeting tax collectors with tar and feathers. Declarations of rebellion. There is no America without American protest.

Freedom isn't free, and dissidents are the lifeblood of American liberty. Without conscientious objection, America would still be a nation of child labor, male- only voting, legal segregation and smokestack pollution. If you're living with more freedom than your grandparents, thank an activist.

So what's more surprising about Kaepernick is not that he refused to stand during the national anthem, but that so much of America is surprised by it.

There have always been multiple Americas. Some you stand for; others, you don't.

There is the America of Wilma Rudolph, courageous moon landings and city-on-a-hill democracy. It's the America of Bill Gates, the Golden Gate Bridge and police risking their lives to save others'.

There is also the America of internment camps, Jim Crow lynchings and massive incarceration. It's the America of Joseph McCarthy, the Trail of Tears and police shooting unarmed black men.

There are also two distinctly different Chattanoogas.

One, we love.

The other, we protest.

Friday morning, we woke to the news that Brainerd High's football team would meet the national anthem that night in solidarity: standing, heads bowed, a closed fist over their hearts.

By noon, it fell apart. Reports emerged that players and parents weren't informed. Nor the administration, nor the central office. That the Brainerd coach was acting singlehandedly.

One county commissioner threatened to have him fired. The central office rushed out a statement. Four top administrators planned to be at the Brainerd game that night. (When was the last time that happened?)

All because black kids may have protested.

The moment — or the possibility of it — had echoes of 1960s sit-ins, led by students. In the ongoing struggle between doing what is easy and doing what is right, students throughout history have been quick to toe the line. Sign me up. Let's change the world. Let's right the wrongs.

By developing and exercising their emerging conscience and democratic toolbox, students grow into the brave and moral leaders this nation needs. Doing nothing — the definition of status quo — solves nothing.

When you look closely at the front lines of the moral arc, students are usually there.

In this case, officials are saying that students did not know of the Friday protest. Who knows how true that is.

What matters more is our reaction.

Why is the idea of young black men acting with democratic strength and power something that frightens and angers so much of Hamilton County?

What are we so afraid of?

The national anthem and flag are never more important than what they represent — flesh-and-blood Americans. The real issue is never the protest; it's the abuse that lies behind the protest.

Yes, the Brainerd administration — Uras Agee, Charles Mitchell — are mighty men doing mighty work; the slow turnaround of Brainerd has well begun. My hunch is they would want the school known for its emerging academics and discipline, not the controversy of Friday night.

But the rest of us should not judge Friday night's possible protest without also knowing the conditions of the other six days of the week. It's like only caring whether black students stand for the anthem, but not what happens when they go back home after the game.

Walk the halls of inner-city schools in Chattanooga. Ask how many students have ever visited the Tennessee Aquarium. Or seen the river. Or walked on a college campus. Or expect to live to 21.

Ask them what it means to live in Chattanooga.

Ask them about their American dream.

Don't you see?

Protest comes from God. It is the outer manifestation of an inner desire: for freedom, for justice, for life.

Lift every voice and sing.

Brainerd High is America, too.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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