Last year, then-San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick took up kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games in protest of a government that claims to provide ‘justice and liberty’ to all, but fails to do that consistently when it comes to people of colour and other minorities. Last week, Donald Trump referenced that protest at a campaign rally in Alabama and since then the debate has raged world-wide about what the protest is truly about and who is involved. Is it about race? Is it about American pride? Is it insulting to veterans? Why is everyone kneeling? If the details of this whole thing seem muddled and messed up at this point, that’s because many people are shouting about them and very few are listening. Let’s breakdown this debate and look at exactly who is saying what and the message that sends to everyone.
The original protest
On 14 August 2016, Colin Kaepernick began sitting on the bench for the national anthem at San Francisco 49ers games. On August 26, he gained some attention for it when a journalist shared a photo. He explained a few days later.
‘I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone.
‘That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening.’ He also said that his protest is about the unfair treatment of black people–especially black men–at the hands of police in America.
‘There is police brutality. People of color have been targeted by police. So that’s a large part of it and they’re government officials. [Police] are put in place by the government. So that’s something that this country has to change. There’s things we can do to hold them more accountable. Make those standards higher.’
At the end of August, former Seattle Seahawks player and veteran Nate Boyer addressed Kaepernick. He lauded him for his courage in protesting and being a black man in America but expressed how hurtful it was to him as a veteran to see someone sit on the bench during the anthem for the country he had put his life on the line for. A few days later, the two met up and came to a more respectful arrangement. Boyer said, ‘We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammate. Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect.’
Trump’s Rally Comments
There was a good deal of debate about this last year and it had certainly made it’s way around the news cycle several times before last Friday when Donald Trump blew it up into an international incident.
The president spoke at a campaign rally for then-Senate candidate Luther Strange, who he was endorsing (side note: Strange lost). In a speech that covered many topics, one thing Trump brought up was Kaepernick’s protest.
‘Wouldn’t you like to see these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, they say ‘Get that son of a b— off the field right now. Out. He’s fired,’ he then repeated ‘He’s fired!’ in the classic Trump Apprentice style.
‘That’s a total disrespect of our heritage,’ he added, ‘A total disrespect for everything we stand for… And I know we have freedoms and we have freedom of choice and many, many different freedoms, but you know what, it’s still totally totally disrespectful.’
The next day, Trump doubled down on his comments and made further problematic statements via Twitter. He tweeted out 14 sports-related messages, the worst of which suggested that NFL players be grateful for the privilege to play and that their protest was an attack on the American flag, not about race.
If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
…our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag — we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 25, 2017
The problem with the rhetoric
Suggesting that black NFL players should be grateful for what their country has allowed them to do suggests that black people in general need to be thankful for what white Americans have allowed them to become successful at. By this logic, when a white person is successful, they worked hard and got there themselves, but a black person is permitted to reach any level of success. That’s a scary and damaging viewpoint to be expressed by the president of the United States (or anyone really).
Kaepernick’s argument is not with the flag and what it represents for Americans, it’s the fact that not all those Americans are actually treated fairly and more often than not, it’s because of the colour of their skin. Trump saying that this is not an issue of race is not only reductive, it’s blatantly false. Kaepernick’s original statement is about exactly that: police brutality against black communities.
The bigger message here
The bigger race issue present in the now world-wide debate is: how are black people supposed to protest and use their first amendment rights in America? Marches are frequently condemned as riots and either turn violent or are framed that way. Kneeling is silent, personal and doesn’t harm anyone, yet that isn’t allowed either. Trevor Noah put it best on The Daily Show.
There are many issues at play here–and these aren’t even all of them–and while it’s good to have these conversations in a productive way, the original message is being lost in the noise. We can’t forget that this debate is about race at it’s core and that the solution isn’t to fire people, it’s to listen to them and make positive change.