"I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, in any place," O'Rourke said.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, the Democrat from El Paso, Texas, who is waging a credible challenge to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for his seat this November, defended NFL players' right to protest in a video that has gone viral since it was posted on Tuesday.
O’Rourke was asked at a campaign town hall if he thought NFL players' kneeling during the national anthem was disrespectful. The person asking the question said he found it “incredibly frustrating” that people supported such protests.
“My short answer is: No, I don’t think it’s disrespectful,” O’Rourke responded, which drew applause from the audience.
"Reasonable people can disagree on this issue. Let’s begin there. And it makes them no less American to come down on a different conclusion on this issue, right?" he added.
O'Rourke then connected the issue to the nonviolent protests during the Civil Rights Movement spurred by the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing, which killed four young black girls, and the Freedom Riders who were terrorized while challenging segregation laws, among other events.
“Peaceful, nonviolent protests, including taking a knee at a football game to point out that black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement, without accountability, and without justice,” O’Rourke said. "And this problem — as grave as it is — is not going to fix itself, and they’re frustrated, frankly, with people like me and those in positions of public trust and power, who have been unable to resolve this or bring justice for what has been done and to stop it from continuing to happen in this country."
He added: "And so 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, anytime, anywhere, in any place.”
The video of his response, posted by the news site NowThis, has since garnered 11 million views and more than 300,000 shares on Facebook as of Thursday morning.
President Donald Trump, who endorsed Cruz in the race, has repeatedly sought to make a political issue of the protests, calling the players who kneel during the national anthem "sons of b------" and suggesting that players be "suspended without pay." Players have frequently noted that they are not protesting the anthem, but rather racism and police brutality against African-Americans, something O'Rourke echoed in his response during the town hall.
O’Rourke is currently trailing Cruz by just 4 percentage points — placing him within striking distance of defeating the junior Republican senator and potentially giving Texas Democrats a win in a major statewide contest for the first time in almost three decades, according to an NBC News/Marist poll.
Cruz criticized O'Rourke's comments on the protests in a tweet on Thursday, saying, "Most Texans stand for the flag."