San Francisco 49ers quarterback — for the moment — Colin Kaepernick got a whole bunch of people’s panties in a twist when he sat down during the national anthem this past Friday. But, to paraphrase Esquire’s Charlie Pierce, at least he’s shouting at the right buildings:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
“Getting away with murder.” That is the issue. Please to focus.
Kaepernick, who is himself of multiracial ancestry, has more than just his literal skin in this game: At this writing, it’s unclear whether he even still has a job with the 49ers independent of his protest (although he’s slated to start the final preseason game), and his protest makes it less likely that another NFL team might hire him and makes him a less likely prospect for endorsement deals. That’s a ton of money to be potentially walking away from, but he has made it clear that he couldn’t care less.
I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.
First things first: Is what he is doing “legal”? Yes. There’s no First Amendment issue here because government is not involved, and there’s no law against what he did. The NFL does not require players to stand for the national anthem. 49ers coach Chip Kelly told reporters, “It’s not my right to tell him not to do something.” And the team itself issued a statement:
The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.
DeMaurice Smith, head of the players’ union, the NFL Players Association, made clear that the union stands behind Kaepernick even though Smith said the form Kaepernick’s protest took made him personally uncomfortable:
I’m not sure that any father, son, mother, you know, brother whose family member is on that playing field would want to hear that their family member should just shut up and play, because that reduces you to something less than human.
Next question: Is his cause justified? Based on the facts, on the merits, absolutely. Even in recent years, discrimination against African Americans and other minorities has been documented in employment, housing, lending, and other areas. And the recent cases of unarmed African Americans being killed by police, to which Kaepernick spoke directly, speak for themselves. This country wrote itself some huge checks in 1776 and 1787, checks that we are still struggling to cash today. That’s a fact, and Kaepernick is not wrong at all to point it out. And I’ll have more to say on that in a bit.
Next question: Was his method “appropriate” — i.e., the best way to get his message across? A lot of people don’t think so. Former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, now at the University of Michigan, initially said, “I don’t respect the motivation or the action,” before later “clarifying,” “I apologize for misspeaking my true sentiments. To clarify, I support Colin’s motivation. It’s his method of action that I take exception to.” And New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees told ESPN, “there’s plenty of other ways that you can do that in a peaceful manner that doesn’t involve being disrespectful to the American flag.” Brees particularly thought Kaepernick’s protest was disrespectful to the military even though Kaepernick specifically said that what he did was not intended to disrespect the military. And the San Francisco police union wants an apology (more on that in a bit, as well).
But here’s the thing about protest: It’s meant to make people at least a little uncomfortable, because comfortable people usually don’t often get involved in unpopular but positive change. From the Boston Tea Party to the Pullman strike, from the March on Washington to the Greensboro sit-ins and beyond, Americans have stood up, or sat down, for all kinds of issues, most of which resulted in the betterment of society and some of which made this country possible. Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in major-league baseball, felt the same way as Kaepernick:
There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
And of course there’s the case of Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1966 because, as a conscientious objector, he refused to be drafted. He was convicted of draft evasion, but he took the U.S. government all the way to the Supreme Court and whipped it like a rented mule. Upon Ali’s recent death, he was hailed as an activist and a man of conscience for his actions. Kaepernick is getting a lot of criticism, but his action was less disruptive than Ali’s and sits squarely within the same long tradition.
And here’s another thing about protest: You don’t get to choose the means for protesters to protest. That’s their call, and as long as it’s within the law (or, for civil disobedience, as long as protesters are willing to pay society’s price), you don’t get to say anything about it. You have no — what’s the word? — standing.
Beyond all that perspective on protest, there’s the particular nature of what’s behind objection to this particular protest: political idolatry. God commands the Israelites in the Second Commandment not to worship graven images. But that’s what a lot of Americans do when it comes to patriotism. They’ve tried to ban flag burning (the Supreme Court, including the late Antonin Scalia, held it to be protected political speech). They seek to enforce conformity in how people express their patriotism, either not knowing or not caring that to do so is the very opposite of political freedom. In short, they confuse patriotism’s idols — the flag, the anthem, even the U.S. military — for the actual qualities we say we embody. Meanwhile, issues like discrimination, poverty, and abusive police officers continue to go unaddressed without a whole lot of complaint, or even caring, by the majority of Americans. Kaepernick was pointing out an inconsistency, if not a hypocrisy, between what we say about ourselves and what we actually do. Yeah, it stings — but it stings because he’s right.
Moreover, there is racism in the national anthem itself, as this excellent article at TheRoot.com shows:
To understand the full “Star-Spangled Banner” story, you have to understand the author. Key was an aristocrat and city prosecutor in Washington, D.C. He was, like most enlightened men at the time, notagainst slavery; he just thought that since blacks were mentally inferior, masters should treat them with more Christian kindness. He supported sending free blacks (not slaves) back to Africa and, with a few exceptions, was about as pro-slavery, anti-black and anti-abolitionist as you could get at the time.
Of particular note was Key’s opposition to the idea of the Colonial Marines. The Marines were a battalion of runaway slaves who joined with the British Royal Army in exchange for their freedom. The Marines were not only a terrifying example of what slaves would do if given the chance, but also a repudiation of the white superiority that men like Key were so invested in.
All of these ideas and concepts came together around Aug. 24, 1815, at the Battle of Bladensburg, where Key, who was serving as a lieutenant at the time, ran into a battalion of Colonial Marines. His troops were taken to the woodshed by the very black folks he disdained, and he fled back to his home in Georgetown to lick his wounds. The British troops, emboldened by their victory in Bladensburg, then marched into Washington, D.C., burning the Library of Congress, the Capitol Building and the White House. You can imagine that Key was very much in his feelings seeing black soldiers trampling on the city he so desperately loved.
A few weeks later, in September of 1815, far from being a captive, Key was on a British boat begging for the release of one of his friends, a doctor named William Beanes. Key was on the boat waiting to see if the British would release his friend when he observed the bloody battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore on Sept. 13, 1815. America lost the battle but managed to inflict heavy casualties on the British in the process. This inspired Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” right then and there, but no one remembers that he wrote a full third stanza decrying the former slaves who were now working for the British army:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
In other words, Key was saying that the blood of all the former slaves and “hirelings” on the battlefield will wash away the pollution of the British invaders. With Key still bitter that some black soldiers got the best of him a few weeks earlier, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is as much a patriotic song as it is a diss track to black people who had the audacity to fight for their freedom. Perhaps that’s why it took almost 100 years for the song to become the national anthem.
Some opponents, including Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, have suggested that Kaepernick is hypocritical for complaining about a country in which he has achieved professional and financial success, saying, “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try. It won’t happen.” These people miss another point Kaepernick made clear in interviews: It’s not just about Colin Kaepernick, but also about a lot of other people who are less fortunate. Kaepernick has a platform, at least for now, and he has chosen to use it in that way. Donald Trump, of all people, is utterly unqualified to lecture Kaepernick about anything.
And, finally, to get back to Kaepernick’s original point: We have too many cases in this country of African American people dying wrongly at the hands of police without anyone being held accountable. From 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cincinnati to Freddie Gray, who died while being transported in police custody, it’s happening and not enough is being done about it. Rogue officers are not being held accountable. That’s about as serious a problem of political governance as they come, yet large numbers of Americans don’t even see a problem. The San Francisco police union apparently doesn’t see a problem, so don’t talk to me about a “few bad apples.”
In a democratic republic, the government is us, and those police officers are acting in our name and with our tax dollars. Do we really want this to be a country in which people die unnecessarily at the hands of police? If not, I grant you, there may not be a hell of a lot any one individual can do. But the least you can do is to sit down and stop shoveling shit at the guy who’s pointing out the problem.