Sometimes, progress comes from the least-expected places.
San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the national anthem at a preseason NFL game this August to protest police violence against people of color in America. This act set into motion a flurry of events that reflect the hatred and ignorance in this country, but also amplify the benefits of bravely confronting the apathy that allows such ignorance to grow. Kaepernick walked into the perfect protest, and the intensity of the reaction only speaks to how effective it was.
“When there’s significant change, and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand,” Kaepernick said at a press conference in early September. “If we have these real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people- if we have these conversations, there’s a better understanding of where both sides are coming from.”
One reason the protest is so effective is its target audience, the demographic dubbed “Football America” by sports media. American football culture has a reputation for being right-leaning, hypermasculine, capitalistically motivated and socially conservative. A large portion of professional football fans don’t concern themselves with movements like Black Lives Matter, and a recent poll of NFL fans listed Kaepernick as the most unpopular player in the league. The negative reactions and the hostile accusations that Kaepernick is unpatriotic, disrespectful to military veterans and ungrateful for the freedoms he has, betrays how sheltered the average NFL viewer is from the reality of life as a person of color in America.
The NFL itself has been accused of “paid patriotism” by Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, the latter of whom was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. The league had been paid over $723,734 by the United States Defense Department in return for honoring the military before games (it returned the money earlier this year in response to the criticism,) while also suing players for breaking uniform policy in order to pay tribute to people serving in the military.
Undoubtedly, the NFL itself adheres to blind patriotism and perpetuates a rhetorical idealization of the American mainstream which whitewashes actual problems in favor of more marketable narratives.
With the NFL and its viewers trapped in this money-drunk stupor of rah-rah patriotism, is it any wonder that they were so shocked when someone doused them in the cold water of reality? At least 18 black men were killed by the police last month, including Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamar Scott and Alfred Okwera Olango, all of whom were unarmed. According to The Guardian, 201 black men have been killed by the police in 2016 so far.
The issues of state violence and oppression against people of color are getting harder and harder to ignore, and those who keep their heads buried in the sand need a wake-up call. They need someone to make them think about why a black person may not feel comfortable regarding the American flag or anthem as a symbol of freedom and liberty. That flag and its anthem represent a government that has created the systems that to this day exploit and kill people for being black. Who better to deliver that message than football players, who are widely revered and respected by mainstream Americans?
Many critics hide behind the notion that the national anthem is too sacred to target for protest. But playing the politics of respectability gets a movement nowhere; nobody has ever been moved to create change by someone not pushing them outside their comfort zone. And if the national anthem is so sacred, we must address its three oft-ignored verses, which include the passages “No refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,” (seen by many as a glorification of slavery,) and “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, and this be our motto – ‘in god is our trust,’” which smacks of colonial ambition and manifest destiny.
It is hypocritical to denounce the use of the national anthem as a platform for protest. It also goes against the popular sentiment of actual military veterans who took to the internet in defense of Kaepernick’s protests, and the similar ones that followed with the Twitter hashtag #VeteransForKeapernick.
The responses by veterans included both full support for, and agreement with, Kaepernick’s actions. And some, while not in full agreement with Kaepernick’s stand, believed that the reason they served was to protect a society that allows people to express themselves through dissent.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this simple protest is how easy it is to replicate. Shortly after reporters first noticed Kaepernick, players around the league knelt during the national anthem and eventually branched out, organizing team-wide gestures of unity and raising their fists in reference to Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
The protest has been mimicked by players of all ages all over the country, and not just in football. Seattle Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe knelt not only at a National Women’s Soccer League match, but an international match for the U.S. Women’s National Team. Rapinoe cited her own experience of being oppressed as a member of the LGBTQ+ community as part of her motivation for joining the protest.
The protest has even spread from sports into other events. It can be done at any time when the national anthem is played, by anyone with the ability to kneel, sit or stand. This is important, because it invites every one of us to join. In fact, it dares us to answer the ultimate question: What is more important, respecting a flag or demanding that it respects all of us back?
That question is why I think this protest is so successful. Yes, the initial reactions were disheartening for progress on race relations, but in time I think it will sink in. I think Kaepernick stirred the pot, and the supportive voices have in the end outnumbered and outlasted the angry ones. This leaves the enraged with no choice but to leave this experience a little bit more educated on both how their experiences differ from those of people of color, and on how much work we have to do together before we can unite under one flag that represents freedom and justice for all.