Written by Madison House Photo via Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images
On August 26, 2016 the San Francisco 49ers arrived at Levi’s Stadium for their third preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. Colin Kaepernick, a Black American football player, sat down because he couldn’t support a country that turned a blind eye to systemic and institutional racism.
Although Black people make up only 13% of the American population, they account for 37% of prison inmates.
Black Americans use drugs at a fifth of the rate as white Americans, yet Black Americans are ten times as likely to end up in prison for drug-related convictions. At six times the rate of white people, one in three Black Americans is incarcerated. Unarmed, innocent Black men are shot by police while their children, siblings, spouses, and parents look on. The fear of violence and criminalization is constant in the lives of Black Americans.
This concept is far from new. In fact, it’s one of the oldest American traditions. The Declaration of Independence claimed freedom, liberty, and justice for all while a whole population of Black slaves was excluded from this freedom.
Historically, the qualities of the United States in which we pride ourselves so often have never applied to a large portion of the population. Yet, Black men fight American wars, are subject to American punishments, and are expected to stand up and sing about the greatness and freedom of America, which has never fully applied to them.
Kaepernick wasn’t sitting down to protest America; he was sitting down to protest the disconnect between “American” values and the treatment of Black Americans.
In the late 17th century, British-American colonists in what is now the United States were becoming increasingly frustrated with their lack of representation in the British government.
Thus, they took a more radical strategy and threw 46 tons of tea (equating to about $4 million in current value) into the Boston Harbor on September 19, 1773 resulting in The “Boston Tea Party”.
We became a country because some patriotic men desired equality so much that they were willing to break the boundaries of cultural custom.
In January 1917, at the beginning of World War I, Alice Paul led a group of women through the National Women’s Party in protest, in which American women chained themselves to the White House for the right to vote.
Consequently, countless of women were arrested.
In prison, they were beaten, dragged, thrown, and tortured for asking to be granted access to the American Constitution. Paul’s hunger strike to protest their treatment resulted in weeks of women being force-fed until they vomited, a violent form of torture.
Thanks to the years of Alice Paul’s passionate and drastic protest, women were granted the right to vote with the 19th Amendment.
In 1955 Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, breaking American segregation laws of the time. She was considered a rebel, a rebel who was violating an approved, supposedly constitutional law.
Eventually, her label of “rebel” became one of “patriot” because she wasn’t fighting against the U.S. Constitution, she was fighting for the U.S. Constitution.
A year after the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, bus segregation was declared unconstitutional, thanks to Parks and her colleagues who challenged normalcy in the name of America.
Throughout history, many have seen American patriotism as full-blown support of the president and of the government. However, American ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice for all, all have a foundation in protest. We owe most of our human rights to “disrespectful” and “unpatriotic” dissent.
If you believe that Alice Paul, the Sons of Liberty, and Rosa Parks should’ve stayed silent in fear of disrespecting the United States, read no further. This interpretation of patriotism allows no room for protest.
As Americans, it’s our responsibility to challenge everything we know to be true in order to make the Constitution a reality.
So when Colin Kaepernick and other professional athletes kneel during the National Anthem, is that patriotism?
Many self-proclaimed patriots want to silence the criticism of athletes regarding our country.
Many also ignore that their silence regarding issues of inequality is actually unpatriotic. As Americans, it’s not only our right but also our responsibility to challenge the government in order to create a country of freedom and equality.
Many want to argue that Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem before his football games to make a statement about police brutality and mass incarceration, the modern forms of discrimination against Black Americans, is unpatriotic. Or that the football field isn’t the right platform.
Then, what is the right forum? British ships? The White House? Public transportation? These forums certainly weren’t acceptable in their times.
As athletes have the power and fame to make a difference, what right do we have to say they can’t speak up for a cause?
Others try to argue that because the playing of the national anthem is, in part, a tribute to military veterans, Kaepernick is disrespecting men and women fighting for our country. What many don’t recognize is Kaepernick’s conversations with veterans in his attempt to be as respectful as possible because his protest isn’t against veterans, it’s against culture, society, history, and government.After a conversation with a veteran, Kaepernick moved away from sitting on the bench for the anthem and began kneeling, as he was told this position would provide a more respectful platform for his protest.]
After a conversation with a veteran, Kaepernick moved away from sitting on the bench for the anthem and began kneeling, as he was told this position would provide a more respectful platform for his protest.
On the other side of the spectrum, many will argue that what Kaepernick’s doing isn’t nearly enough to fight the battle of American racism that’s been ongoing since 1619.
A few professional athletes kneeling for the national anthem is far from sufficient to achieve racial equality in America. But every bit counts, and this movement will open up conversation within communities that have the privilege of being able to ignore the issues that Kaepernick brings up.
How many white Americans have the much-needed conversation about racism in America?
It’s a difficult but a necessary conversation to have because change can only come once everyone recognizes that there’s a problem and gathers enough support to actually make a difference. Kaepernick’s platform, the football field, brings possibly ignorant white football fans into the loop.
Thus, Kaepernick’s movement is an essential starting point because the conversation of racial inequities has to have a place in white communities.
Kneeling for the national anthem can be seen as crude or thoughtless. Kaepernick’s actions can seem rude and radical, but that is the point of the American Constitution. Radical ideas and actions are what formed this country, formed what rights we do have, and formed our democracy.
American men didn’t need to throw over large boxes of tea—wasn’t that rude to the British government? Alice Paul trespassed and chained herself up—how could one be so disrespectful of the president and the home of our democracy? Rosa Parks stubbornly refused to listen to authority—is that not showing large disregard for American forces?
Kaepernick’s movement is patriotism. Influential people are standing up to fight for their rights, for their equality, for their freedom, and they are doing so by using traditional American methods of appalling radicalism.
If one does not agree, what should Kaepernick be doing instead of exercising his right to freedom, his right to democracy, and his right to protest in the way that every oppressed American has in the past?
There is no proper, agreeable, respectful, way to protest because any action that would fit this description, wouldn’t have enough of an impact to even count as a protest.
There is no right way to protest, and there is no type of person who is best suited for protest. Protest is meant to start a conversation, to empower the protester, to make a statement, and Kaepernick’s protest accomplishes these goals.