Want to start a fight? Just follow Colin Kaepernick’s lead and kneel in protest of police brutality during the American national anthem at an NFL “Military Appreciation Night.”
Since the Aug. 26 incident, Kaepernick has been derided for disrespecting the troops, desecrating the flag, and hating America. The least-inflamed of the anti-protest group argue that Kaepernick has a right to protest, but employs inappropriate methods. The most inflamed say he should ‘just stick to sports’ and work on resurrecting his recently-disappointing football career.
Lost in this smorgasbord of patriotic hot-takes and confusions is that Kaepernick has a very clear, actionable protest. For this reason, his protest will succeed past the current, and incorrect, perception that he is disrespecting the military and America. The rhetoric opposing Kaepernick is avoiding his message in order to trot out platitudes about the military and patriotism. That Kaepernick is steadfast in his protest and simple in his message will help blast through those false narratives.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” said Kaepernick. “Cops are getting paid leave for killing people, that is not right [….] You can become a cop in six months, and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist—that’s insane.”
Unlike his critics, Kaepernick has the facts on his side. According to crowdsourced databases, over a third of unarmed people killed by police in 2015 were black men, and unarmed African Americans are killed at five times the rate of their white counterparts. Only recently have the police even been required to report all arrest-related deaths to the US Justice Department. Kaepernick is right: This violence—and lack of accountability for it—is deeply concerning.
The strength of Kaepernick’s message is further enhanced by the fact that he genuinely relates to the issue of police brutality: He experienced injustice at the hands of the police when he and his college roommates had guns pulled on them as they attempted to move into their new house.
Yet Kaepernick’s protest has to navigate a lot of mitigating factors to even get off the ground. The NFL is not usually a place where many players join protests, or do anything to tarnish the NFL’s brand. Cameron Heyward, for example, was fined last year for breaking the NFL’s strict uniform policy when he wore eye black to honour his late father. The NFL also has a no-distractions culture where talk of anything other than football is frowned upon. Yet Kaepernick’s critics owe it to him to look beyond his sport’s culture, and judge his protest based on the validity and urgency of the issues he raises.
However, one thing works in his favour: The NFL is 68 per cent black, and police brutality affects African-Americans regardless of wealth or status. The outpouring of anguish on Twitter from NFL players after the killings of Philando Castle and Alton Sterling suggests that his colleagues no doubt feel the same. Already, two other NFL players, Eric Reed of the San Francisco 49ers and Jeremy Lane of the Seattle Seahawks, have already joined his protest.
Kaepernick’s protest is still young. It also has to navigate a complex set of forces which are, taken by themselves, not necessarily bad: The business of the NFL, patriotism, the military, and the emotion that the national anthem rightfully stirs up in people. The simplicity of Kaepernick’s message, however, is its strength. He is bringing attention to police brutality against people of colour as a player in a predominantly black league. He is presenting the facts, not in a way that people necessarily like or want to listen to, but he is presenting them nonetheless.