The march on Selma, Alabama

When is the right time to protest?

Kaepernick and the white privilege that allows others to decide when a protest is OK

When Colin Kaepernick quietly stayed off of his feet during the national anthem just before a 49ers game, no one noticed at first. Then, when a reporter asked him why he didn’t stand, it turned out he was protesting his country’s brutal treatment of African-Americans by the police and continued institutional racism. This then broke the Internet.

A few of the responses were virulently racist, a few supportive. Some, such as the Santa Clara Police Union, decided they should counter protest by not working security for 49ers games.

Many people have been sharing measured, reasonable responses to the protest arguing that although Kaepernick has every right to be upset and to protest, that was not the time to do it, and he should be supporting his team. This got me thinking. When is the right time to protest?

A brief survey of some of the most successful protests that I can think of include the Montgomery bus boycott, the counter sit-ins, and Gandhi’s hunger strikes. Part of what made these protests effective is they caused tremendous inconvenience to authority. They were peaceful, but not quiet. It forced those in power to see the injustice.

Before we can decide whether a protest is appropriate, we have to decide what a protest is. Webster’s defines protest as “a solemn declaration of opinion and usually of dissent”

A protest ceases to be a protest when it becomes violent. We use words like riot, revolt, attack, assassination, war to describe these acts of defiance. Clearly a protest that injures or kills is a different animal. Enacting change through violence always has unintended consequences that can be far-reaching and negative (exhibit A: Syria’s Arab Spring).

When is a protest appropriate? Who decides? The act of protest is by definition a desperate act. It is one taken when society has determined that your voice is unimportant and the normal system of recourse fails. When the legal system does not provide justice, and does not care to. When the political process overlooks your needs, and may not even recognize them as existing.

The Black Lives Matter movement has expended considerable energy attempting to find recourse through the courts, through marches, through online campaigns, and through speeches. Yet somehow, we are still hearing about deaths of young black, unarmed men at the hands of police and vigilantes all too often, the latest on September 16, 2016 in Tulsa, OK. And almost none of the people responsible for these deaths face any consequences.

Lighter-skinned people rarely need to think about racism. Darker skinned people don’t have a choice about when to think about racism, it just happens to them. Their lives are disrupted at the most inopportune times by it. This is a huge weight. What better way to protest this oppression than during a football game?

Football is a game that became popular because a native American boarding school began to beat Harvard and Yale regularly. It was a chance to prove that the savages could be civilized and beat the good ol’ boys at their own game. Yes, this is intrinsically racist, but it is our history, palatable or not. 77% of football fans were white in 2013. In the 2010 census, approximately 63% of the United States were white, so white people are over-represented in viewers of football. 67% of professional football players are black in the United States. These facts are undeniable. Football players are mostly dark-skinned, yet fans are mostly light-skinned. The people who most need to hear the message that Black Lives Matter are those who watch football.

Frankly, we don’t get to choose when it is the right time to protest. It is up to the protestor. We only choose our reaction. We can choose to empathize or to condemn. Which do you choose?