A Deputy Police Chief from Middletown, New Jersey hosted a rally honoring local law enforcement on Friday that he said was intended to send a message to professional athletes like San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has recently refused to stand during pre-game performances of the national anthem in a show of solidarity with victims of police brutality. Kaepernick has said he won't stand up "to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color" while "there are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
"It's OK to stand up for social justice, inequality and reform," Deputy Chief Stephen Dollinger told the Asbury Park Press last week. "It's another thing to not stand up for the national anthem."
Dollinger's so-called "Salute to the USA" took place before a highly-anticipated High School football game on Friday night, between Jersey Shore rivals Middletown South and Toms River North. Hundreds of officers from across the state took to the field for a bagpipe procession, and unfolded a massive American flag with the help of both teams. Linden Police Officer Angel Padilla, who was injured while apprehending alleged Chelsea bomber Ahmad Khan Rahimi, received an award.
"I wanted to show that pro athletes are supposed to be role models, but in this case the athletes—the high school athletes—are going to be setting the example. It's going to be kind of a role reversal," Dollinger said ahead of the event.
In response to Dollinger's comments, the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union accused local police of setting out to silence dissenting voices.
"The police have a duty to defend the rights of protesters, not to use such a large-scale display of force that effectively silences people with differing viewpoints," said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou in a statement.
"The statements made by the deputy police chief and the event's ostentatious show of power send an ominous, frightening message," added ACLU organizer Jasmine Crenshaw. "That, as an official stance, law enforcement will not tolerate expressions acknowledging our nation’s history of unequal treatment and systematic oppression."
In a letter to school officials ahead of the rally [PDF], the ACLU, Greater Long Branch NAACP, and National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives urged both schools to keep in mind their students' First Amendment right to "kneel, sit or stand" during the national anthem.
In his introductory remarks on Friday night, Dollinger called the salute "an exhibition of respect, as our two communities come together to celebrate our country, law enforcement, the military, and first responders that help keep us safe."
Dollinger later told reporters that his comments about Kaepernick had been "twisted."
"This [event] wasn't closed to anybody," he said. "Everybody was welcome to come here. So I don't know where that got skewed. The ACLU can come here. This is just about honoring our country and the men and women of law enforcement and first responders. That's all this is about."
— All Black Media (@Allblackmedia) September 12, 2016