Monday, August 29, 2016


Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the playing of the US national anthem before an exhibition NFL football game has become something of a lightning rod for opinions from all corners of North America. In terms of protests from athletes, it ranks with the "Black Glove" salute from two American athletes during the Mexico Olympics of 1968, and Muhammad Ali's willingness to go to jail for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. Athletes have used their position of prominence to advance causes they believe in for years, and Kaepernick is following the tradition. And, like the former athletes, he has been the subject of intense criticism and even threatening backlash. He was, of course, completely aware that he would receive the reaction and, therefore, willing to endure it.

The reason for the protest is the issue of police violence against African-Americans. Kaepernick has stated that he cannot show respect for a country that allows institutional violence against a visible minority. The issue has created groups such as Black Lives Matter, who attempt to keep the issue front and centre in the nation's consciousness in order to get people talking ... and hopefully, to get some kind of solution. The stories in the news of police shootings of unarmed and unresisting black people have been seared into our televisions screens, but little seems to have been done to alleviate the problem, and the violence continues. Keapernick has, apparently, had enough: hence, the protest.

Most of the backlash has come from those who suggest that the protest shows complete disrespect for the anthem, the flag and all that these represent. The accepted sign of respect for any anthem or national flag is to stand at attention, remove headgear, remain silent or sing along with the lyrics. For Americans, a hand-over-heart salute is part of the ritual.  When Kaepernick remained seated on the team's bench, he seemingly violated all of these. There is no doubt he did it: his act was caught on video and, predictably, it has gone viral. It is, without doubt, a massive sign of disrespect.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the criticism is the linking of the anthem and flag with the US military. Yes, it's true that soldiers in many wars have fought and died under the flag. But Kaepernick's actions did not specifically identify the US military as the target of his protest. He identified the nation as his target. For people to become so visceral in their condemnation claiming that he showed disrespect for the military is troubling because it shows that, in many corners of the US, the military IS the country. The flag, they seem to suggest, is the embodiment of the US military. And the anthem is a clarion call to war and bloodshed. (Indeed, the lyrics are warlike and praises the war of 1812.) For them, Kaepernick was giving the military the middle finger. 

The United States is a huge, complex and diverse country. It has a long and fascinating history, complete with amazing achievements and horrible dark moments. It is nation of art, science, technology, and philosophy. It is also a nation of racism, slavery, crime, and the endless glorification of violence. Because of this, it is easy for some people to fixate on things that offer to bring an end to the dark side of the nation. They cling to institutions and symbols that, in the face of the darkness, provide protection of them, their families, and the nation they want to exist. Hence, the military is the embodiment of all that's "good" about America.

Those who criticise Kaepernick on these grounds have some questions to answer. Are they willing to admit that the US is a nation solely devoted to the glorification, establishment and maintenance of its military? Is the US simply a more modern version of ancient Sparta? Or a flashier version of today's North Korea? And are they saying to the whole world that they, Kaepernick's critics, are ready to cast aside all of the humane, creative and inspiring things that their nation has provided to the world in its past?  And are they saying that any sign of protest or criticism is a sign of disloyalty to the military, but not the other things that the US embodies? There are no easy answer to these questions, just as there is no easy solution to the issue of police violence to African Americans, and other minorities also.

Few of us would do what Kaepernick did. The certainty of criticism and backlash would convince most of us to do the expected and stand for the anthem, and keep the strong feelings on the violence against African Americans inside, or reserve our feelings for conversations with family and friends. And most of us have genuine respect for the rituals of national anthems: we feel a true link to the things we hold dear about our country.

But what's truly important are these three things: First, Kaepernick's actions are, at least, to be admired for the courage and principles behind them. Second, the linkage of the protest to the military as the sole vestige of what the country represents is troubling. And third, the conversation surrounding the issue of police violence against African Americans, which is the core of Kaepernick's actions, is long overdue and, perhaps in no small way because of Kaepernick, actually happening.

We can dislike Kaepernick's tactics, but we must agree with his intentions.

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