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Colin Kaepernick's protest might be unpatriotic. And that's just fine | Mychal Denzel Smith | Opinion

Category: Political Protests,Politics

Two years ago, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down during the playing of the national anthem. When asked why, he told the press: “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 had, like millions of other Americans, witnessed police violence take the lives of a number of unarmed black people, while the excuses for such violence piled up next to an absence of accountability. The protest spread, within the league and outside, sparking a fresh round of conversations about the place of politics within sports, the role of the athlete-activist, free speech, and what constitutes an appropriate protest.

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Two years later, Kaepernick no longer plays in the NFL, a status he is challenging in a collusion grievance brought against the league. Only a few players have kept the protest going, but it remains in the news in large part because Donald Trump has adopted it as a pet issue, tweeting his disapproval often.

Lost in the discussion has been the original cause that Kaepernick meant to draw attention to, that of police violence against black people. On the same day that the NFL announced a new policy requiring all players to stand for the anthem or face a fine (this policy was overturned before preseason began), video surfaced of Milwaukee police officers tasering NBA player Sterling Brown for a parking violation. The issue persists but the conversation around the NFL protests failed to move beyond whether or not the players were disrespecting the flag and the anthem.

Understandably, this frustrates the supporters of the protests, who are particularly rankled by the characterization in some media outlets of the protests as “anthem protests”. The players are not protesting the anthem, the retort goes, and the use of such shorthand obfuscates the stated reasons for the protests.

But while it may be inelegant to refer to them as “anthem protests”, it is not inaccurate. The time and place of the protest was chosen deliberately. The flag and the anthem are not the reasons for the protest, but their symbolism is the target. “I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed,” Kaepernick said in the initial explanation of his protest. “When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”

Kaepernick refused to participate in the compulsory patriotism ordered by the NFL while American institutions, represented by the flag and honored by the anthem, continued to carry out the violent repression of its citizens. Kaepernick’s protest dramatized the failure of the anthem’s promise to carry over into its country’s systems of governance. That failure needed the direct challenge that his actions provided.

San Francisco 49ers players Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem before a game on 6 October 2016.
San Francisco 49ers players Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem before a game on 6 October 2016. Photograph: USA Today Sports

What defenders of Kaepernick and other protesters have had to respond to is the suggestion that not standing for the anthem is tantamount to some form of treason. “It’s not right. This is our country,” NHL coach John Tortorella said when the protests first started. “Our people are fighting for our country, our flag, and our anthem. That shouldn’t come into this equation at all.”

Others have certainly said worse, on and off the record. In defense of the protesters, supporters have taken debates over the semantics – quibbling about calling them “anthem protests” – and reframed them as part of an American tradition of dissent that is fully in line with the principles of the anthem.

The protests are being recast as a patriotic act. “I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, or any place,” Representative Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic challenger to Senator Ted Cruz, said recently. It is one of the strongest statements of support to come from a white elected official holding national office. But in some ways, it dilutes the protest’s significance. As the writer Nathaniel Friedman put it on Twitter: “In trying to find the least offensive or provocative way to describe the NFL kneeling protests, we’ve robbed them of some of their power.”

The protest does not need to be recast as patriotic. Patriotism is not a higher virtue than justice. Nor are they synonymous, which is what the protests, at their most potent, remind us. Whether or not they are “American” in nature is inconsequential if we, as Americans, have failed to provide that term with any real meaning. If the flag is big enough to contain the diametrically opposed ideologies of the police who kill and the people who protest the killing, then the principles it is meant to stand in for are shot through with an inconsistency that cannot hold. It must come down on one side or the other. To be American must either be an embrace of freedom or an embrace of racist violence, because thus far attempting to straddle the hypocritical middle of these two has resulted only in pain, frustration, conflict, and death that is poised to continue indefinitely.

This is the point of the anthem protests. Calling them that does not diminish them. If anything, it presents an opportunity to have an intentional discussion about the anthem’s symbolic charge. Recasting the protests as patriotic will not win converts. Protests, in their time, are never popular.

They aren’t meant to be. They are meant to galvanize the power of the dispossessed and put the powerful on notice that the status quo cannot persist. Challenging the symbols of uninterrogated patriotism is as good of a place to start as any.

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