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Acts of conscience on a bended knee

United States

On 26 August, just as his team was about to take the field for an American Football game against the Green Bay Packers, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, made what has become a famous decision – he opted not to stand during the singing of the national anthem.

Daniel Gluskoter/Associated Press

This act, Kaepernick explained, was intended to protest racism and police brutality against African Americans. ‘To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,’ he stated. ‘There are bodies in the street and people… getting away with murder.’

His cogent explanation notwithstanding, Kaepernick’s display of conscience was quickly painted as a scandalous act of insufficient patriotism. Since 9/11, the pre-game performance of the national anthem has become a flag-waving pageant, spurred on by millions of dollars in direct donations from the Department of Defense to professional sports teams.

Of course, no matter how solemn and dignified an act of resistance might be, there’s always a crowd of critics ready to tell dissenters that they are protesting the wrong way. Even some liberals have labelled Kaepernick’s approach ‘arrogant’ and ‘disrespectful’.

Yet, as the quarterback kneeled before subsequent games, the virtues of his chosen stance became clear. ‘You could show a photo of Kaepernick’s protest to someone who has never seen a football game or heard the national anthem or has no concept of race relations in this country,’ a commentator in the New York Times noted, ‘and the viewer would immediately understand the dynamics at work.’

Crucially, the unassuming protest could be easily copied.

Just as it looked like Kaepernick might go down as one of the most hated athletes in America, a curious thing happened. Teammate Eric Reed, a Pro Bowl safety and leader of the 49ers defence, joined in. ‘I just wanted to... let him know that he’s not the only person who feels what he feels,’ Reed said.

Others in the league followed suit. Miami Dolphins running back Arian Foster recruited several of his teammates to protest. Meanwhile, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Marcus Peters raised his fist during the anthem in a nod to the Black Power salute given at the 1968 Olympics.

By the middle of September, the protest had become a mass phenomenon, spreading far beyond a single sport. Women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who is white, took the knee. ‘It needs to be everyone confronting problems in our country, not just people of colour,’ she explained. In women’s basketball, the entire Indiana Fever team knelt before a play-off game.

High-school sports teams did the same. In Oakland, members of the school district marching band knelt together as they played the anthem, as did a singer performing before a Sacramento Kings basketball game. Even fans have joined in.

In the words of the New York Times, ‘Over the course of two months, Kaepernick has gone from a forgotten and failing quarterback to mass-produced icon. Hundreds of Kaepernicks kneel everywhere.’ While he may still be widely reviled among conservative football fans, Kaepernick’s #7 jersey has become one of the fastest selling in the league, surpassing those of marquee players such as Trump supporter Tom Brady.

Within social movements, there always exists discussion about how to most effectively dramatize an issue. Those putting themselves on the front­lines have every right to debate which forms of protest might be resonant and which counterproductive.

But armchair critics who disparage others’ tactics while doing nothing themselves to address injustice practise a uniquely repugnant hypocrisy. Martin Luther King, Jr recognized this when he warned of moderates who deplored demonstrations but failed to ‘express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being’.

The many who have adopted the quarterback’s simple and eloquent act of conscience as their own provide more than adequate rebuttal to the critics. Hundreds of Kaepernicks kneel everywhere.

Mark Engler’s new book is entitled This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website DemocracyUprising.com.

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