Stop Comparing Colin Kaepernick to the Troops

A couple days ago, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the National Anthem prior to a Niners preseason game. He did this, he said, because people of color are often treated as second class citizens in the United States. This, of course, caused a national uproar, with all the standard “if you don’t like this country, you can live somewhere else”-type responses from idiots who don’t like thinking and prefer their patriotism unfettered and simplistic and their First Amendment selective.

It also inspired some of the most classic, Facebook-shareable memeing I’ve seen in all my years on the Internet:

Strong scare quotes around “oppresses black people”

Damn. Makes you think. If you use Facebook and haven’t seen this yet, you’ll probably see it within the next couple days. There’s a hard-to-define, you-know-it-when you see it quality that some people have that guarantees that any time literally anything happens with a black person that could be considered “un-American,” they’ll be there to press the share button on a post involving the troops and/or police officers and watch the easy likes roll in.

I have a theory that there are a lot of people who actually love when they get an excuse to compare a celebrity unfavorably to troops. There’s a sort of secondhand valor: they may not be troops themselves, but forcing an association while proving their respect for them in the face of the anti-American millennial hoard is the next best thing, right? Call it the Chicken Fried Effect.

There seems to be something in the DNA of American culture that leads to a fetishization of the military and, by extension, of police. That means that, in almost any situation, if you don’t like someone’s attitude or point of view on something, you can pull out a comparison to the troops as a trump card, and as long as people don’t feel like thinking or arguing, they’ll agree with you by default.

Look at that picture again. This sort of one-to-one comparison, while tempting, also has absolutely nothing to do with the matter at hand. A handpicked member of the military is as relevant to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem as Colin Kaepernick is to the plot of Suicide Squad — in other words, it has so little relevance that it’s basically completely arbitrary.

In fact, even if Kaepernick had explained his actions as a protest against U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, it still wouldn’t have had much to do with the men and women with their boots on the ground. Short of literally saying “I didn’t stand for the National Anthem because I hate the troops and think they’re dumb cowards,” there’s almost nothing to be learned by putting his picture and some useless trivia side by side with that of Glen Coffee and some useless trivia.

Perhaps even more troubling than the obsession with the military is that this particular picture uses fact that he gets paid millions of dollars to play a game as a counterpoint to the fact that he says black people are oppressed in America. The idea that blackness can be the reason for getting paid to play football but not the reason that people might be killed by police officers in greater numbers is so discordant and purposely dismissive that it makes my head hurt. It shows an actively closed mind to understanding why Colin Kaepernick feels strongly enough about the plight of people of color in America that he’d take a professional risk like that in order to get his message out.

The form of Kaepernick’s protest ensured that it would become a national story. Unfortunately, because the mistreatment of people of color in America is an uncomfortable subject, it also gave people an excuse to use performative patriotism to capture the empathy of the lowest common denominator and ignore the protest’s actual purpose in favor of jingoistic chest pounding.

To people easily outraged by someone disrespecting their idea of America, Glen Coffee (or more accurately, the set of easily digestible facts that make up Glen Coffee) is a tool to trivialize a message they don’t like, the same way the straw man question at the bottom of the picture (“Who’s the real hero?”) is a tool. And like any tool, once that set of easily digestible facts has served it’s purpose, it’ll be discarded and forgotten about. Due to his notoriety, Colin Kaepernick is not so easily discarded, and despite the outrage, he’s already getting other people to join in his protest, in the hopes that the names of the black men and women killed unnecessarily by police won’t be forgotten, either.

I mentioned earlier that there’s almost nothing to be learned from a picture like this. I said almost because one of the facts not mentioned is that in 2010, Glen Coffee was arrested for possession of a concealed firearm. It’s a situation that echoes a couple of the highly publicized police shootings from this past summer, and had that encounter ended tragically, the same people now using him as a model American citizens would likely have denounced him as just another dead thug. Luckily, it didn’t end tragically; it never should. So in a way, Coffee is a perfect example Kaepernick’s point, and Black Live Matters’ point: just look at what happens when black people are treated like people.