When I first heard that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had kneeled during the National Anthem before a preseason game, I shrugged a bit. As a football fan who too often thinks in football terms and metaphors, I even thought to myself that he was probably doing it to get attention since he had fallen off as the team's lead quarterback.
Then, though, I realized that I needed to check my privilege. My response was clearly a kneejerk response much as the ones that I hate like the sigh-invoking "All lives matter!" refrain from so many white folks when anything about the "Black Lives Matter" movement comes up. Mind you, it wasn't that I was against his action—I'm for freedom of unpopular expression and I'm loudly on record against society's acceptance of over-policing—I just didn't immediately see that kneeling would do any good.
But his defiance quickly grew on me. The dawning realization that Kaepernick's action was a big deal came through the negative. As I saw all the anger that mostly white people were hurling at him for simply taking a knee to make a point, I could see how much his protest really mattered.
Watching the supposedly anti-politically correct crowd freaking out over someone taking an action that is the ultimately politically incorrect thing in the U.S.—opting out of patriotic symbolism—reminded me that Kaepernick's action is an ultimate act of Americanism. It is non-violent protest, and it is over something very important—yes, black lives mattering just as much as mine—and it is his right.
Besides, the thought that anyone steps out in a way that will bring a hail of hate down him is a way to grab attention is absurd, and I know it in my own small way as a progressive newspaper woman in Mississippi now for 14 years publishing new voices. Being willing to confront unpopular views takes a thick skin, and there is no end to how people will try to insult and hurt you personally as a result. You should only do it if you mean it.
Of course, Kaepernick's cause is mighty. I've long obsessed over the issue of over-policing, back to the days in the 1980s when New York City police bloodied protesters around Tompkins Square Park blocks from my apartment because they tried to block the city from evicting homeless people from public parks. I'm talking people sitting on their stoops being beaten with billy clubs. That was a vicious response to public protest on behalf of people too powerless to speak for themselves.
I soon started paying close attention to police brutality, including the types of over-policing that most people barely noticed. You know, a mentally ill guy swings a stick at a cop, as one did in Colorado Springs after I helped start a paper there, and police shoot him dead in self-defense. Or, off-duty cops shoot at the driver of a moving car for supposedly trying to hit them outside a bar where they were doing freelance security work. (A police expert I know said, "They should try getting out of the way," and then pointed out that a dead driver was more likely to hit them as well as pedestrians.)
Or, then, the death of Amadou Diallo in a hail of bullets and the police-precinct stick-assault of Abner Louima who had angered very bad police officers. And so many others that drew little attention to the iPhone came along, capturing the abuse in progress, such as the chokehold of Eric Garner in New York or the dead body of Mike Brown lying for hours in the street in Ferguson, Mo., unnecessary no matter how justified the cop claims he was. Now, we have Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla.
Yes, white people have been, and often are, victims of violent over-policing. No, black people aren't the only victims. But here's the thing: Black and brown people have always been over-victimized by law enforcement, and the system and our historically white-run society have been much more likely then to look the other way, or blame the victim as many people did to 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was playing with a toy gun when police shot him.
The cops who shot Diallo for reaching for his wallet were acquitted, and one of them was just named a Sergeant of the Year in New York City. Yes, the killing of Diallo was horrendous and unnecessary, but so was their acquittal and the fact that the cops got to carry guns on the force again, and at least one was promoted and then got a policing award. Not to mention, the defense argued that the Diallo shooters had just done what the department expected and trained them to do.
Protesters like Kaepernick are responding to these entrenched societal views that justify thinking that a 12-year-old black kid is more of a threat than a similar white kid (recent research has proved this implicit bias). The quarterback has never said that "Only Black Lives Matter"; in fact, the idea that white lives still matter more to many is what he and others are protesting. The irony is that supporting the demands for police to train out implicit bias and ensure de-escalation techniques will make everyone safer, so it's amazing that the movement so offends anyone. But it sadly does.
Also noteworthy in Kaepernick's protest—which other athletes and coaches, of various races, around the country are following—is that it is exactly the kind of speech that our First Amendment protects. It's kind of weird to think that we would need an amendment to ensure the protection of speech the majority loves; the whole point of the Bill of Rights is to protect one person's individual rights.
It not about the majority, and it can't be. It is, actually, exactly about the right to be politically incorrect, regardless of whose set of politics you offend.
Free-speech rights are not one-way, either; we have the right to talk back and even try to drown someone out if we want. One's speech rights are not violated when someone else tells them they are wrong; thus, it's Donald Trump's right to be a bigot; and it's our right to call him out for it.
Kaepernick, whether you agree with his methods or not, is exercising the ultimate American right when he kneels: the right to say that this work-in-progress needs to get a little bit better. I salute him, and others following him, for that message.