On Colin Kaepernick and who is allowed to protest in America

Congrats, America, you got me to write about this.

Tony Avelar/AP

What a busy week it’s been. Between the Dean of Students at my university shitting on safe spaces and trigger warnings, the 61st anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, and Willy Wonka’s tragic passing, I’ve had a lot to think about.

But I’m only here to talk about one thing right now: the fact that I’m defending Colin Kaepernick, a person I had never heard of until three days ago.

I don’t watch football. I can barely name any current football players in the NFL, let alone on the 49ers.

It’s a shame that this is what people are arguing about in the United States. Not redlining. Not police brutality. Not mass incarceration. What to do during the national anthem.

People are mad at him for not standing up during the national anthem, despite him giving a fairly good reason for doing so:

“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.”

It’s a shame that the people angry at Kaepernick aren’t also equally mad at real problems that he was trying to address. Oh, they pretend to care with responses like, “I think the problems he said are important, but I don’t like what he did.” But these people are actually ignoring the problems and instead focusing on the method of protest.

We have historical precedent for this. In Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, she points out many conservatives’ reaction to protests during the Civil Rights Movement:

For more than a decade — from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s — conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime. Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political in nature, and federal courts were accused of excessive “lenience” toward lawlessness, thereby contributing to the spread of crime. In the words of then–vice president Richard Nixon, the increasing crime rate “can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them.”

This sounds eerily similar to criticisms of Black Lives Matter and, of course, Kaepernick. Instead of it being viewed as a political act, it’s viewed as a sign of disrespect; a crime. It’s a crime to disrespect the flag, by burning or otherwise. It’s a crime to openly disrespect the country and its symbols, no matter the reason.

Never mind that the Supreme Court declared flag burning a first amendment right, or that we have a presidential candidate whose campaign slogan implies that America isn’t great, or that not standing up for the national anthem is a relatively harmless act.

We need to discuss who is truly allowed to protest in the United States, because it sure isn’t people of color.

I have seen very few, if any, pundits and politicians calling the (mostly white) people who burned Kaepernick’s jerseys in protest “teddy bears,” “criminals,” “rioters,” or “racists.” Instead, they get featured on Fox News’ Facebook page as a top story.

Why are these people so defensive about this? I have a possible reason: a black man, especially a professional athlete, using his fame to speak out against injustices ruffles a lot of feathers. But you know what pisses off a lot of white America more than talking about those issues? When you don’t blindly support your country.

Once again, we have historical precedence for this. I’ll let Kirsten West Savali from The Root take it from here:

Despite the nation’s history of activist athletes — including Muhammad Ali, who in 1966 refused to serve in the Vietnam War; Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists in a black power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City as “The Star-Bangled Banner” played — their friend and ally Peter Norman standing beside them in solidarity; and Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, who in 1995 refused to participate in the “nationalistic ritualism” of recognizing the flag and singing the anthem — racists in this country continue to feign surprise that blacks in America are not eternally grateful for the “privilege” of not being in chains.

Given what these people have gone through, can you really be surprised at the outrage? To many, it’s not a right, but an expectation to pledge allegiance to the flag and show your support a country that has historically marginalized people of color.

There are civil rights leaders who are still alive. Millions of people who lived through the racism of the past are still walking around to this day. Emmett Till would have been 75 years old this year. African Americans have only been able to vote for 50 years. There are many social inequalities happening today that disproportionately affect people of color.

What’s worse is that people criticizing him are not even concerned about the issues he’s addressing. All they care about is whether or not he disrespected the country and its veterans. Veterans who, once again, fought for his right to not stand during the anthem as well. PR move or not, the criticism he got over this is telling about us as a country.

They care more about a gesture of blind respect for a country rather than what actual people have been (and still are) going through because of that same country. People are dying, and the best response to that is “Well, I just wish you would raise awareness another way, or donate to a cause. One that isn’t as mean to America.”

What would you suggest he do? He chose to sit out of the national anthem. He didn’t riot; he didn’t hurt anybody (except some people’s feelings). He used his fame to speak up for a cause at a national level, giving voice to many people who would otherwise be ignored. And he got dragged through the mud for that. Welcome to the United States of America.

You want him to donate and volunteer, and that’s great. But he can’t do anything else? Really? He could have donated his entire salary to charity and cured cancer with Jesus and your opinion of him wouldn’t change. It’s “shut up, blindly show loyalty to my country, and throw the damn ball, or get the fuck out.”

And we haven’t even not even getting into how creepy it is that, in a supposedly ‘free’ country, we’re ‘required’ to stand up for the national anthem. The refusal to do so, especially out of protest, is one of the most American things you can do. It’s a right that is also a huge irony; being able to openly criticize your own country, where people are risking their lives to defend that right.

People refuse to stand for the national anthem all the time, often because of their personal or religious beliefs. I don’t put my hand over my heart or say the Pledge of Allegiance anymore. Why? Because I find it incredibly cult-like and silly that people have to prove how prairie dogic they are to be considered a ‘true American,’ whatever that may mean.

I love this country. It seems like I don’t , sometimes, but I do. However, there are a lot of issues I have with its history and how I, as a black man, have been affected by it. I can watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July while simultaneously sharing Fredrick Douglass’ speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”.

That’s the beauty of the United States of America. You have the right to blindly celebrate it, but you also have the right to freely criticize it. It’s a shame what happens when the wrong kind of person tries to exercise the latter right.

Additional reading:

A veteran’s perspective:

A great article from ESPN, of all places:

and then another from The Root: