What form of protest would you consider acceptable?
Over the past two weeks, we’ve witnessed athletes kneeling during the national anthem becoming a virtual national security crisis. Private citizens have taken sides, while the President has spent more public time excoriating kneeling football players than engaging in public diplomacy about North Korea. Not since Miley Cyrus twerked on MTV has a story with no import for Americans’ lives dominated the news cycle so thoroughly.
And repeatedly, the question arises: is it acceptable for professional athletes, mostly black, mostly paid significantly above the national mean, to fail to stand at attention during displays of for-profit patriotism?
In 2015, when African Americans in Baltimore rioted against the acquittal of police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, news reports flooded in calling rioters mean-spirited thugs and demanding they protest nonviolently. These reports, often in the form of Facebook and Twitter memes, included orphan quotes from Dr. King, reminding us that he espoused nonviolent means to achieve political ends. Why, they asked, couldn’t protesters be quiet and respectful like Dr. King?
This interpretation overlooks several important facts. First, Dr. King was hardly quiet. I’ll permit more informed scholars, like Michael Eric Dyson, to explain how politically canny King’s strategies really were. However, if you think mass marches on seats of government didn’t jolt and inconvenience the power structure; if you think lunch counter sit-ins didn’t disrupt private enterprise; if you think bus boycotts didn’t threaten the structure of the city, then you haven’t thought through the implications.
That said, in decrying street violence following the Freddie Gray injustice, people, including many of my best friends, at least recognized that violence wouldn’t improve civil society. When the powerless rise up in arms against the powerful, they occasionally win great victories; in practice, rebels from Thomas Müntzer to the Tiananmen Square martyrs, generally get crushed. Dr. King’s nonviolence was strategic as much as ideological.
Colin Kaepernick answered this top-level violence, often committed under color of authority, by… assuming the posture of prayer. Doing it during the national anthem, on consideration, makes great sense. Anthems, standing in unison, the hand-on-heart salute—these are all acts of Christian liturgy. Performing the national anthem before sporting events serves the purposes of America’s national religion. What better time than during liturgy to pray for justice?
Yet even this, apparently, is too much for Americans who enjoy the protections of our contemporary power structure. (I’ll avoid saying “white,” since the breakdown isn’t strictly racial these days, but certain tendencies survive.) We’ve heard outraged claims about disrespecting the flag, from people who wrap flag bandannas around their heads. I’m not the first to comment upon the inconsistency.
Most important, we have a breakdown of what constitutes objectionable behavior. I’ve heard, from people I otherwise consider significantly well-informed, that the Charlottesville marchers, who waved Nazi flags, chanted racist slogans, and surrounded a Black church while waving torches, were simply exercising free speech. I’m baffled to comprehend how that’s acceptable, but kneeling during the anthem merits outraged vulgarity from America’s highest elected office.
Perhaps you’d prefer a protest that doesn’t impinge on the public sphere. I answer: the Freedom Riders didn’t start a letter-writing campaign. Protests that happen privately, and quietly, seldom make any difference. In order to change deeply rooted social injustice, protesters must first make that injustice visible. If they took their protest from your view, you could continue believing nothing’s wrong, as indeed many people have. Your anger is a sign that problems really do exist, and need addressed.
Because these problems exist. And they’re not going away simply because saying so hurts your feelings.