Critics of his national anthem protests don't understand the harsh reality of white supremacy that black people like me face every day.
On Thursday night, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears locked arms on the sidelines as the US national anthem played at Lambeau Field in Wisconsin. According to a statement released by the Packers, the display was an effort to show "unity." The demonstration, which was more about patriotism than protest, came after President Donald Trump and many NFL players waged a sort of symbolic war over what it means to be American.
Of course, patriotism and unity weren't exactly what Colin Kaepernick was concerned with in the fall of 2016 when he helped make the seemingly banal recitation of the national song so contentious. Kaepernick's move was simple—he sat down while everyone else stood up with their hands over their heart. (This later transitioned into a kneel thanks to the suggestion of former Seahawks player Nate Boyer.) His purpose was always about racial equality. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag," he explained to Steve Wyche of NFL.com, "for a country that oppresses black people, and people of color."
Kaepernick's modest demonstration came in the wake of the high-profile police shootings of black people like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Since then, despite the assurances of new US attorney general Jeff Sessions that the gunning down of black men by the state is merely the result of "bad apples" among otherwise rock-solid cops, the oppression of black people in North America has remained painfully evident. All you have to do is look at the stats.
While black people only made up 13 percent of the population in the US in 2016, they made up more than 24 percent of the American citizens killed by cops. In Canada, there are no available statistics on police shootings by race. But we do know that blacks make up fewer than 3 percent of the population and more than 10 percent of all federal inmates. And the horrific viral videos of Sterling and Castile's deaths made clear what black people from the rural American South to the cold streets of Ontario know instinctively: Under white supremacy, our lives do not matter.
I had to grapple with this reality a few years ago, when I was 23 years old. I remembered walking down a street that led home one night, a street that I knew like the back of my hand. A white patrolman for reasons that were never made clear stopped me in my tracks. As he stepped out of his car, with his hand gripping his gun holster, I thought about the horrific deaths like those of Rekia Boyd and Ramarley Graham and felt scared for my life. As he stood there measuring me, he asked, "Where are you off to?" I wondered if I would become one of those names memorialized on T-shirts or poster boards and recognized in that moment that I was no longer a stellar college student or a clean-cut kid. To the cop stroking his pistol, I was a black man—and black men in America are viewed as incredibly dangerous and easily expendable.
Because of experiences like that, I connected with Colin Kaepernick's solemn protest against white supremacy, as did many others across North America. Since the fall of 2016, a cadre of athletes, activists, and everyday people have come out in support of Kaepernick. Some even staged their own "anthem protests" in solidarity last season. But as modest and peaceful as those demonstrations against the violent war waged against black bodies have been, what's more telling is the American vitriol they inspired.
In the league where he was once hailed as having the potential to be "one of the greatest quarterbacks ever," this season, Kaepernick has been effectively blackballed out of a job. Conservative commentators like Bill Mitchell have framed Kaepernick's protest as "divisive," while political figures such as former congressman Joe Walsh have labeled the black athletes and stars engaged in anthem protests "ungrateful millionaires."
But the most virulent—and incoherent—response to these demonstrations came, predictably, from Donald Trump. While Barack Obama didn't exactly agree with Kaepernick, he supported the player's right to protest in 2016. However, Trump has gone out of his way to slander him and all the other athletes who followed in his footsteps. At the rally earlier this month in Alabama that set off the latest wave of protests, Trump said, "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired. He's fired.'"
The powers that be have been so threatened by Kaepernick's protest of white supremacy in North America that they've tried to co-opt his message with this "locking arms in the name of unity" nonsense. Which completely obscures the realities Kaepernick was trying to expose.
Of course, the angry white overreaction to Kaepernick's modest, almost passive protest against violent oppression is not without precedent in sports. In 1967, similar barbs were lobbed at Muhammad Ali when he protested against the Vietnam War. Television host David Susskind called Ali a disgrace to the country and a "simplistic fool and a pawn." In 1968, when John Carlos and Tommie Carlos lifted their fist in a black power salute at the Olympic Games, Chicago-based sports writer Brent Musburger referred to them as "black-skinned Stormtroopers." And in 2004, when Toronto Blue Jays' player Carlos Delgado refused to stand for the US national anthem in protest to the US war in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was booed at Yankee Stadium. The truth is that standing up against the violence committed by American institutions has never been popular.
While athletes like Kaepernick certainly enjoy privilege that comes from their wealth and their social status, this does not spare them from the burden of blackness in America. LeBron James, one of the most successful and famous athletes today, had to face this reality earlier this year when his home was defaced with a racial slur. He saw in that moment what I recognized when I was pulled over by that patrolman—that when it comes down to it, regardless of all of our complexities, accomplishments, and idiosyncrasies, white America does not see us as equal and does not value our existence.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in Between the World and Me, "There is an extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble, and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur." Kaepernick's acts of protest helped hold that dream accountable for every black person who faces the unjust violence and brutality of the state. And as long as that state-sanctioned violence against black people continues, athletes and everyday people must continue to fight for equality and justice.
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