Saturday, September 17, 2016

On Kaepernick

As Colin Kaepernick continues to silently drop to one knee as the Star Spangled Banner is played, the conversation and the controversy continue on Facebook and Twitter, around water coolers and at kitchen tables. After spending plenty of time reading, discussing and thinking about the subject, the time has come to put my thoughts into print.  Writing, for me, has never been reactionary.  It is the culmination of deep thought and reflection, and it allows me to present my thoughts and ideas with clarity and conviction.

I can say with complete clarity and conviction that not everyone who reads this will agree with my conclusions.  I am certain that most people reading these words have their own feelings on the subject and may disagree strongly with Mr. Kaepernick’s actions.  I am confident that others will write, and have written, words that convey a different opinion, and yet are just as thoughtfully presented as mine.  I only ask that, as you read these words, you understand that they are not intended to provoke an argument, but rather to spark a conversation. 

My words are my platform.

We are raised as Americans to always respect the American flag, to stand for the Star Spangled Banner, to remove our hats, place our hands over our hearts, and to appreciate the freedom and opportunity that these symbols represent.  The anthem means many things to many people.  For me, I think of freedom, the Olympics, and the many sacrifices of our soldiers.  I think of how lucky I am to have had the blind luck to be born here, considering that more than 95% of humans live somewhere else on the planet.  It is not surprising, especially given my upbringing, that I had mixed feelings when I heard that Mr. Kaepernick was taking a stand by sitting down.

I want to talk about the means of protest, but I’ll come back to that later.  The first thing, and the most important thing, is the protest itself.  Colin hasn’t made a lot of public statements, but he hasn’t been unclear about his reasoning.  From the reading that I’ve done, he has made two major public statements explaining his actions, and I’ve copied them below. 

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color”, Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “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.”

“I’ll continue to stand with the people who are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change, and when there’s significant change — and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way it’s supposed to — I’ll stand.”

While it is relatively clear from the first quote that he is referencing recent police shootings of black men, he also talks more generally in both quotes about “a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” and standing with “people who are being oppressed.” His statements suggest that he is holding the flag, as the symbol of our country, to a higher standard.  He is demonstrating a disapproval with how our country is currently performing against our stated ideals and expectations for ourselves. 

In recent days, a number of other athletes have voiced their support for his sentiments, and many have even decided to join in the protest. Brandon Marshall, a linebacker for the Denver Broncos, recently started taking a knee. His explanation is as follows:

“The message is that I’m against social injustice,” Marshall told reporters after the game. “I’m not against the military, police or America at all. I’m against social injustice and I feel like this is the right thing to do.”

If you believe that racism is a problem in this country, that minorities are sometimes oppressed, that injustice is ingrained in many of our institutions, then it is easier to understand the actions of these athletes.  If, on the other hand, you disagree with the premise of the protest, then the means of expression is irrelevant.  In other words, if you don’t think Colin has a point, then it really doesn’t matter how he decides to express his disapproval. 

I’ve also listened to people argue that, because of Kaepernick’s success as an athlete, or due to his financial standing, that he doesn’t have a right to speak on these issues.  I suppose the suggestion is that you shouldn’t protest oppression if you are not among the oppressed. Let’s put aside the fact that Kaepernick is a mixed-race man raised by white parents, who works for mostly white billionaire employers alongside mostly black co-workers.  I’m going to go out on a limb and assume he’s run into some sort of difficulty at some point in his 28 years. This contention reminds me of a discussion I once had with someone who tried to convince me that a wealthy, white politician was a hypocrite for suggesting tax increases on wealthy people.  After spending quite some time arguing that acting against your own self-interests to benefit others doesn’t make one a hypocrite, we ended up agreeing to disagree. 

The more important point, however, is that protesting against the unjust treatment of others is exactly what we should all be doing.  As I’ve stated before on these pages, real change doesn’t tend to happen unless those who have the power find the courage to stand up for those who are denied it.  Kaepernick’s fame and fortune don’t disqualify him from standing up for his ideals, they simply give him a larger stage to stand upon.

If I haven’t lost you yet, I hope that you can agree with the following two points:
  1. Oppression of minorities happens, and it is a problem worthy of our time and contemplation.
  2. Colin Kaepernick, or any one of us, has every right to call attention to this problem.

Let’s return to the flag.  Even if we can agree that there is a problem with racism in America, and that an NFL football player has every right to speak his mind, many of us are still bothered by the means of protest.  Initially, I was bothered by the ambiguity of the action, by the many ways that his protest would be (mis)interpreted.  I worried that his important message would be drowned out by the protests of police officers, active military officers and military veterans. 

Instead, something else happened.  Kaepernick’s team supported his right to protest.  The NFL decided not to punish him.  He sat down with a member of the military to discuss his motivation.  Pretty soon, #VeteransForKaepernick started trending on Twitter. He decided to kneel with his teammates instead of sitting alone.  A white US women’s soccer player followed his lead.  Soon, others were kneeling, raising a fist, or supporting his right to protest.  Before you knew it, a conversation was beginning in this country.  Not a consensus, but a conversation. 

Finally, it occurred to me.  You don’t bring attention to something that you care deeply about by doing something that nobody cares about.  That would be like “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli protesting his treatment in the media by going on a hunger strike (seriously dude, go away).  If you want to make a statement, you need to get people’s attention.  Regardless of your feelings on the matter, I’d say he succeeded.

The Star Spangled Banner is much more than a poem set to the music of an old British song.  The flag is more than stripes and stars on a piece of cloth hanging from a pole.  These symbols represent our country, in all of its imperfect glory. It represents immigrants from Europe fleeing from religious persecution and the repression of an archaic caste system.  It represents the farmers and shopkeepers, millers and blacksmiths, who took up arms and demanded the right to govern themselves.  It represents the millions of Native Americans murdered and pushed aside in the name of progress.  It represents boatloads of Africans brought to this country in chains.  It represents Japanese internment camps, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, women’s suffrage, civil rights legislation, the Citizen’s United Supreme Court ruling, and the inexplicable rise of Donald Trump.  This is, and has always been, a country built by imperfect people, with imperfect ideas, and yet we continue to search for a “more perfect Union.”

Colin Kaepernick represents so much of the progress we’ve seen in this country.  There was a time when a bi-racial child would be shunned by society.  Abandoned by his biological father, his mother gave him up for adoption to a white couple who had lost their own children in infancy.  A changing America gave him the opportunity to attend integrated public schools, go to college, and get drafted into the NFL.  He has built his platform through hard work and perseverance, and he has every right to use it as he sees fit. 

Let the conversation continue…

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