And then there’s O’Rourke. In early August, he was asked about the protests at a forum. There isn’t usually much of an upside for white men in O’Rourke’s position to wade into complicated racial issues, much less take a firm stand.
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But instead of dodging the question, he tackled it head-on, framing it as a brave protest against police shootings: “Nonviolently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem to ensure that we fix it. That is why they are doing it. And I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights, any time, anywhere, in any place.”
Ted Cruz, the Republican incumbent, quickly pounced, repackaging O’Rourke’s comments as an attack ad. But then something interesting happened. Instead of self-destructing, O’Rourke’s campaign began to gather steam. He gained a national profile, and hauled in a record $38 million over the past three months. He may not win his race against Cruz, but his willingness to say what other Democratic politicians have not has turned him into a hero of a movement that is still looking for champions—and may show other Democratic politicians that there is more to be gained than lost from standing with Black Lives Matter.
What became the signature moment of his campaign started unpromisingly, at a town hall in Houston in August. When O’Rourke was asked about the player protests, it was pretty clear how the questioner wanted him to respond:
I personally come from a family of veterans. You mentioned the football season earlier. I kind of wanted to know how you personally felt about how disrespectful it is to have the NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. I wanted to know if you found that to be disrespectful to our country, to our veterans, and anybody related to that. I find it incredibly frustrating that people seem to be okay with that. I would just like to hear your input.
“I was prepared for and answering questions about the teachers’ retirement system in Texas, about teacher pay, about high-stakes/high-pressure tests, and this question comes up about the national anthem and what my position is on it,” O’Rourke told me. “I wasn’t expecting it. I just did the best that I could. It can be a very tough issue to talk about.”
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Over the next four minutes, O’Rourke laid out a passionate case for why the NFL players who chose to protest during the national anthem were very much honoring America. He cited Representative John Lewis and the many African Americans who died in pursuit of civil rights as models of real patriotism. O’Rourke told his audience that the player protests weren’t about disrespecting the flag, but they were an expression of growing frustration with the lack of accountability for police who kill unarmed black people.