Kaepernick, Protest & Whether Political Activism & American Pride Can Coexist
On Friday night, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand with his team during the playing of the national anthem. Instead, he sat in protest. And as he'd anticipated, it did not go unnoticed. After the game, he was more than ready to deliver an explanation for his decision.
"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's Steve Wyche in an exclusive interview. "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."
Those are potent and incendiary statements about our country, and the reaction from fans and media and fellow Americans was predictably hysterical. The current political landscape and the increased awareness of violence against minorities by law enforcement had already created a national divide. Then he shifted the conversation to an extreme place: he insinuated that justice for minorities and black people can only be achieved by losing pride in being American.
That's scary. But while we may not like it, we have a chance to use it as a way to course correct.
The only way that we can do that, though, is to acknowledge that Kaepernick was neither entirely right or entirely wrong. That may seem like a cop out, but if we all were a little less rigid in our beliefs about what other people say and do then we might actually start getting somewhere.
So the first issue is the one thing that we should all be able to agree upon, and that's Kaepernick's constitutional right to sit in protest. It is fundamental to the American way of life. Peaceful protest has been a powerful act of political expression throughout the country's history, and to deny him that right just because he is a wealthy celebrity is unacceptable. Citizens of this nation don't lose their political rights just because they are rich and famous.
It's in his explanation for the protest that things go awry for Kaepernick, and for the rest of us; whether we agree with him or not. Because he's not wrong about the fact that this country is a place where many black people and other minorities are oppressed. Racism is alive and well in America. Only a fool would deny that.
But is it our ideals as a nation that is causing that? Or is it the failings of people?
Yes, people are getting away with murder. And it is wrong. And people are circumventing the laws that are put in place to prevent that. And that is also wrong. The fact that millions of female rape victims in this country have almost no ability to get justice is wrong. The fact that in many states, a good and loving father can lose custody of his child to an unstable or incapable mother merely because he is a man is wrong. The fact that there are now people who can't afford HIV medication or an EpiPen because greedy CEOs can jack up the prices is wrong. The fact that women can't earn as much as men on the job is wrong. The fact that children in this country can't get the education they deserve because they live in poor and underfunded communities is wrong.
Sexism, racism, classism and corporate greed plague our society. But we are able to fight back because we live in a nation that- despite all of its flaws - encourages us to do so. That's an incredible thing.
The men and women of the United States military have sacrificed over and over and over again to keep us safe; and have often fought unwinnable battles because they believe in our country. The humanitarian efforts of Americans have changed the world and saved lives.
So we are left with two distinct truths. The first is that black people and other minorities, women, the disabled, the poor and many others fight uphill battles for justice in America. The other is that America is still a place where progress is made every day in some small way, and where discourse is more free and open and honest and uncomfortable and angry and beautiful than anywhere else on this planet.
Kaepernick's big mistake was displacing his anger and frustration. I don't believe that he has lost faith and pride in the flag and the ideals it represents, but with the failings of his fellow Americans; the people who try and often succeed in perverting the law and in perpetuating hate.
But it's scary to think that the desire for this country to be a safer and more equal land for black people - and pride in the American ideal - are somehow mutually exclusive. How do we become a better nation if we don't believe in who we are at our core? If we believe that the American flag stands for murder and oppression then what are we saying about our chances of fixing it? That slope is far more slippery than I believe Kaepernick realizes.
There is grave injustice in this country and in the world; but it's imperative that we remember that "United We Stand, Divided We Fall" is a warning as much as it is a mantra.
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