I can’t think of a time in my life when people of colour were in more danger than they are right now.
I was born in the early 80s. At the height of the Reagan administrations efforts to turn back the clockto a pre-Civil Rights America. I vividly remember Hillary Clinton’s “super predators ” comment about young black men in 1996 to defend her husband’s crime bill which saw a good percentage of almost a generation of black men lost to mass incarceration. I was coming into my own as an activist during the George W. Bush years where Kanye West famously and quite accurately summed up how W felt about black people. Right up to the unfulfilled promise of the Obama years where talk of “hope” and “change” amounted to nothing at all.
In fact it seemed to usher in a age where it became increasingly dangerous to be black in America. The brazen murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman saw Zimmerman walk away a free man due to a “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida that sounds like the type of chicanery that used to allow the members of lynch mobs to walk free during the segregationist south seemed to bring an awareness to the danger facing black lives that a lot of us had forgotten about or been unaware of in the comfort of our white privilege.
It was startling, jarring, sickening but brought out a flurry of violence that resulted in young black men lying dead on the streets. More often than not by law enforcement.
It’s another instance where the problem has existed for a long time for young black men but it only works its way into the mainstream (read: white) consciousness when it’s covered sufficiently by the media. In the past we only had snippets like the Rodney King beating or when the NYPD pumped 41 shots into an unarmed Amadou Diallo while he was reaching for his wallet to identify himself.
That all changed on August 14, 2014 when in Ferguson, Missouri 18 year old Michael Brown was fatally shot by officer Darren Wilson. Wilson fired 12 shots at Brown, hitting him with at least six including the fatal bullet. Many accounts of the incident indicated that Brown had his hands up while Wilson repeatedly fired at him.
The result was the genesis of a movement in Ferguson that began as a protest of the shooting of an unarmed black man in broad daylight. Over two weeks of intense protests and rioting followed the shooting and seemingly every minute of that unrest was covered by the 24/7 media barrage that we’re inundated with via cable news, social media, online outlets, etc.
It didn’t stop there.
Two days after the murder of Michael Brown, 25-year old Ezell Earl Ford was killed by the LAPD. He unarmed and suffered from a variety of mental health issues, most notably schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Two of the officers involved in Ford’s death were later found to be at fault.
On July 17, 2014, 43-year old Eric Garner died when NYPD officers placed him in an illegal chokehold . Despite the coroner ruling his death a homicide, no charges were laid against the officers who murdered him.
28-year old Akai Gurley lost his life when Officer Peter Liang was patrolling a housing project with his gun drawn. He was startled by a noise and fired his weapon with the bullet ricocheting off a wall. Liang was convicted of manslaughter but it was later reduced to a negligent homicide conviction so Liang could avoid prison time.
In October 2014, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shot unarmed Laquan McDonald 16 times. McDonald was just 17 years old and was standing 10 feet away from Van Dyke as he was shot. Van Dyke is facing first degree murder charges but his lawyers are tying to get the charges dropped by arguing that he is being sacrificed to an angry mob.
Disgusted? You should be.
On November 22, 2014, 12 year old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann. He had been playing in a park when officers mistook his toy gun for a real one.
37 year old Natasha McKenna died after being tasered four times with her hands cuffed and legs shackled. Her face was also smothered by a spit guard. She stood at only 5’3” and weighed 130 pounds. She had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, biplolar disorder and depression when she was 14 years old. McKenna left behind a 7 year old daughter.
Freddie Gray was killed when his neck was broken in the back of a police transport van. He had been restrained with leg irons and handcuffs but not a seat belt. The 25 year old’s death was ruled a homicide. Two of the officers were found not guilty in bench trials. All the remaining charges were dropped. The city of Baltimore would later reach a $6.4 million settlement with Gray’s family.
It was in North Charleston, South Carolina that 50 year old Walter Scott was shot and killed while running away from a traffic stop. The incident was captured on video.
On May 5, 2015 LAPD shot and killed an unarmed homeless man, 29 year old, Brendon Glenn, in the back. A commission would later rule his death “unjustified”.
A routine traffic stop proved fatal for Samuel DuBose when the 43 year old was shot dead by officer Ray Tensing. DuBose was getting out of his car after being asked to produce his driver’s license. He was unarmed. Tensing was tried for murder, which ended in a mistrial. He will be retried.
Christian Taylor, a 19 year old who played football was shot and killed by officer Brad Miller in August 2015. Miller pursued the unarmed Taylor during a suspected burglary of a car dealership without informing his superior officer. He was later fired.
58 year old grocer Gregory Gunn was essentially executed by police steps from his Montgomery, Alabama home. In the early hours of February 25, 2016, Gunn was tasered three times, beaten with a baton and shot five times. Officer Aaron Smith has been indicted on murder charges.
These are just some of the people who have lost their lives due to police violence in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder.
At least 258 black people were killed by police in 2016 alone. Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, black males between 18-34 accounted for over 15% of all fatal police shooting in 2015 alone.
That is an epidemic. It’s unfathomable and it says so much of the values of the United States of American that this is not an absolute scandal.
Young black males also comprise nearly 70% of the NFL. They help generate an enormous amount of money for the league to the tune of over $1.55 billion. A typical NFL player also exists as part of the same social demographic that is 2.5 times likelier to killed by the police than their white counterparts.
The relentless assault on black people, particularly young black men should have been an absolute for all of America. In particular, for a sports and corporate empire that generates record revenues off of the backs of young black men. Instead the NFL met the issue with total silence. Indifference, perhaps, but tactit consent in the lack of even a simple statement on behalf of its players and their families.
One man in the league finally had enough. He had seen all of this unfold. He knew all of the facts and figures and the cold reality of what being a young black man meant in American when confronted by a badge and a gun. He knew people who lost their lives or had loved ones who had lost their lives to police violence.
He had enough.
During an August 26 preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, Colin Kaepernick didn’t stand for the national anthem. He hadn’t the week before and the media was noticing an emerging pattern. When asked about why he wasn’t standing for the anthem., the then-28 year old San Francisco 49ers quarterback shocked the football world with his answer:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish of me to look the other way. There are bodies on the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
With that Kaepernick underwent a transformation.
He went from being the gifted young quarterback who led the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance in 2013 and an NFL Championship game in 2014, who had struggled a bit after the departure of Jim Harbaugh and hoped to find his game again under new coach Chip Kelly to not even been by many as a football player anymore.
He became a human lightning rod.
Fans burned his jersey. Former NFL MVP and current broadcaster Boomer Esiason called Kaepernick a ““disgrace and embarassment” while claiming the young QB was “displaying his ignorance”.
Trent Dilfer, another former QB, ripped Kaepernick on ESPN’s flagship NFL Sunday Countdown when he said that “The big thing that hit me through all this was this is a backup quarterback whose job is to be quiet, and sit in the shadows and get the starter ready to play Week 1. Yet he chose a time where all of a sudden he became the center of attention. And it has disrupted that organization. It has caused friction. And it’s torn at the fabric of the team.”
One anonymous NFL executive even referred to Kaepernick as a “traitor” while estimated that 90 to 95% of all other league executives felt the same way.
All of these comments were made before week 1 of the regular season got underway.
Of course, they all reveal more about the individuals who said them than they do about Kaepernick.
For Esiason to use words like “disgrace” or “embarrassment” really makes one wonder how he would have reacted to Dr. John Carlos and Tommie Smith who famously raised their fists in the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics while claiming their gold and bronze medals in the 200 metre race.
Or what he would have done if he had been a contemporary of all-time great running back and outspoken black rights activist Jim Brown in the 1960s. How would have Esiason described the Ali Summit in Cleveland when Brown joined with Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other prominent black activists to support Ali’s anti-war stance and his refusal to go to Vietnam. Would Esiason have called the man considered by many to be the greatest professional football player ever an embarrassment or a disgrace?
For Dilfer to call into question the integrity of Kaepernick’s actions is low. To call into question the timing and legitimacy of a young black man’s protest when young black men are being murdered by the police in epidemic numbers is baffling and truly ignorant. To do it when no less than then-US President Barack Obama vouched for Kaepernick’s sincerity is in especially bad form.
As far as the executive who called Kaepernick a “traitor”? A traitor to what or to who? Are US values really tied up in the ability of the police to murder young black men at will? What are “American values”? Who determines them? Is it the slave masters who founded the country? Is it the people who run it today? Is is the people who live in it? How is Colin Kaepernick a traitor to a country that he is fight to make more just?
For his part, despite receiving death threats, Colin Kaepernick continued his protest. He refined it after discussion with former NFL player and military veteran Nate Boyer who suggested that kneeling would be a better way to ensure that he did not offend other veterans than simply sitting on the bench. Ultimately it was the form his protest would continue to take throughout the NFL season.
One of the most troubling and really dishonest aspects of the criticism of Colin Kaepernick was the manner in which they attempted to characterize his protest an being anti-military when the man himself clearly stated what his intentions were from day one of his protest.
Why should Kaepernick care about the US military thinks anyway? Has anything changed since Muhammad Ali famously refused to go to the Vietnam War while stating famously that no Viet Cong ever “called me nigger”.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
How much has really changed since Ali said those words? There may not be a draft anymore but the plight of young black men in the United States in just as dire. Why would Kaepernick be tied to a military that fights for the same institutions that enshrines the right of American police officers to shoot unarmed black men at will on the streets?
It’s an absurd, cowardly, garbage argument made by a right wing group of chickenhawks that hide behind the military every chance they get.
The “Support Your Troops” crowd.
The great Noam Chomsky once characterized that slogan as follows:
“The point of public relations slogans like “Support our troops” is that they don’t mean anything… That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: Do you support our policy? That’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.”
It’s meaningless jargon to manipulate people to enforce the status quo. If you truly supported the troops, you wouldn’t be sending them to kill poor people in the developing world. If really cared about the military you wouldn’t target the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of your country to go and fight in wars that are more about expanding empire and accumulating capital than they are about anything the politicians and media claim they’re about.
If you really support the troops, become one of them or bring them home. Otherwise shut the fuck up about the troops.
Of course, it was very inconvenient for Colin Kaepernick’s critics when it turned out that military veterans overwhelmingly supported him.
One of the more disgusting narratives to circulate about Colin Kaepernick was that he should not be protesting because he was raised by white parents. On top of being incredibly ignorant, offensive and straight up racist. Such a line of reasoning could only be possible in a fantasy world where the police actually ask young black men what colour their parents are before gunning them down.
Some media outlets went even lower by giving airtime to his obviously unwell birth mother. There doesn’t need to be much more said about the type of parasites who would resort to that sort of thing for views and hits.
The hot takes thrown at Colin Kaepernick were fast, furious and ridiculous. Noted Uncle Tom Stephen A. Smith ripped into Kaepernick for not protesting black-on-black violence. Some took aim at him because he was rich and couldn’t possibly understand oppression and should get out of America.
You know who else is rich? NBA player Thabo Sefolosha. That didn’t stop the NYPD from breaking his leg.
The arguments against Kaepernick weren’t limited to Uncle Ruckus types and right wing fascists like Sarah Palin, several liberal thinkers decided to chime in as well.
Most notably was revered Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who in a rare public misstep called Kaepernick’s protest “dumb”. She was later retract her remark admit it was “remarkably dismissive”, the damage was already done at that point. More to Ginsburg, somewhat revered status among liberals, than to Colin Kaepernick.
But whether it’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Sarah Palin, the root cause of criticism of Kaepernick’s anthem protest is the same white privilege.
For those of you scoff whenever you hear the term. I understand. It’s tossed about a lot and often with little understanding of its meaning and even more often non-contextually to end arguments with a racism accusation. I can assure you, however, that white privilege is real.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. You’re reading a sports blog after all. I’m going to let someone with way more credibility than me explain it to you.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich recently had this to say about the concept of white privilege when asked about Black History Month before a recent Spurs game:
“Well, it’s a remembrance, and a bit of a celebration in some ways. It sounds odd because we’re not there yet, but it’s always important to remember what has passed and what is being experienced now by the black population. It’s a celebration of some of the good things that have happened, and a reminder that there’s a lot more work to do. But more than anything, I think if people take the time to think about it, I think it is our national sin. It always intrigues me when people come out with, ‘I’m tired of talking about that or do we have to talk about race again?’ And the answer is you’re damned right we do. Because it’s always there, and it’s systemic in the sense that when you talk about opportunity it’s not about ‘Well, if you lace up your shoes and you work hard, then you can have the American dream.’ That’s a bunch of hogwash. If you were born white, you automatically have a monstrous advantage educationally, economically, culturally in this society and all the systemic roadblocks that exist, whether it’s in a judicial sense, a neighbourhood sense with laws, zoning, education, we have huge problems in that regard that are very complicated, but take leadership, time, and real concern to try to solve. It’s a tough one because people don’t really want to face it. And it’s in our national discourse. We have a president of the United States who spent four or five years disparaging and trying to illegitimatize our president. And we know that was a big fake. But still, [he] felt for some reason it had to be done. I can still remember a paraphrase close to a quote “investigators were sent to Hawaii and you cannot believe what they found.” Well, that was a lie. So if it’s being discussed and perpetrated at that level, you’ve got a national problem. I think that’s enough.”
White privilege is real.
The fact that I am writing a column on a sports blog about a league that has a team named after a racial slur in Washington and don’t feel sick to my stomach about it is proof enough of that. None of us are immune. I’m not immune either. The struggle against white privilege means that every single day I am facing off with the biggest opponent I have: the man in the mirror.
There is no living, breathing personification of white privilege on this planet than the current President of the United States. A man completely unqualified for the position who ran on a campaign of hate, ignorance and white supremacy. He promised to build wall to keep what he characterized as Mexicans from taking American jobs. He promised to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the United States as he viewed them as responsible for terrorism (not a word from him about all of those white mass shooters though). He said he would “Make America Great Again” but what he meant was make it great again for white people because that was his audience and it was largely a receptive one, because if you listened to him, you didn’t need to feel bad about the issues that Colin Kaepernick was protesting about. You didn’t need to care about bullet riddled black bodies strewn across the streets courtesy of various law enforcement agencies.
It was their own fault, after all. They had it coming. They had their turn with Obama and couldn’t get their shit together. Now we’re going to Make America Great Again.
It was an intoxicating narrative for a lot of white folk. So much so that it became impossible for a lot of people to resist.
That’s why he was in the White House today.
It’s no surprise that during the election campaign, the man who is now US President took direct shots at Colin Kapernick by recycling that old “love it or leave it” trope when he told the NFL QB to “find a new country”. He would then double down on his criticism of Kaepernick by saying that his protests were partially responsible for declining NFL ratings. Although in true egocentric fashion, the now-President also stated that the other reason was that people would rather watch his campaign, somewhat undermining his own argument while bringing up a much more likely explanation (more people were glued to the most divisive US election in modern history).
For his part, Kaepernick could have joined the Clinton campaign or used a political mechanism to get back at the then-Republican candidate. But he didn’t. He’s a man of principle and remembered the aforementioned Clinton crime bill and Hillary’s infamous “super predators” comment. He didn’t undermine his cause for political expediency.
Instead he stuck to his principles. He didn’t vote as he explained:
“You know, I think it would be hypocritical of me to vote. I said from the beginning I was against oppression, I was against the system of oppression. I’m not going to show support for that system. And to me, the oppressor isn’t going to allow you to vote your way out of your oppression.”
Anyone who doubted Kaepernick’s sincerity or his level of understanding of the issues facing black American were now wondering what sort of drink they would be ordering to wash down their words with.
Kapernick was a man of conviction. He was not in it for short term gain but for long term changes.
He also put his own money behind his efforts as he donated $1 million of his salary to charities that help communities in need. He pledged to donate $100,000 of his salary a month to community intiatives. Just this past January Kaepernick donated $50,000 to a free clinic at the Standing Rock camp which has been the home of Dakota Access Pipeline protestors and gave away his enormous shoe collection to help the homeless.
Throughout it all, he took a knee every single game this season.
He took a knee after the United States elected a racist bigot as their president.
He took a knee for every single black life endangered in the US by systemic racism and police violence.
Soon he found he wasn’t alone.
By week 1 of the NFL season, eleven players joined Kaepernick in protest.
Arian Foster, Michael Thomas, Kenny Stills and Jelani Jenkins of the Miami Dolphins took a knee. Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall joined them in a move that cost him two endorsements from companies you should boycott (Century Link and Air Academy Federal Credit Union). Jurrell Cursey, Jason McCourty and Wesley Woodyard of the Tennessee Titans, Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs and Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots all raised their fists a la John Carlos and Tommie Smith.
This wasn’t counting 49ers teammates Jeremy Lane and Eric Reid who had started to join Kaepernick’s protest during the final game of the pre-season.
It was one of the most remarkable days of football that I can remember.
The numbers of players joining Kaepernick would fluctuate throughout the season but he started something that it was clear nobody could stop.
Colin Kapernick was the most important football player on the planet this year. Not for anything he did on the field, but for the movement he inspired off of it.
Matt Ryan may have won the regular season MVP but the real MVP, the people’s champion, was Colin Kaepernick.
While what Ryan did on the field will fade from our memories in much the same way Cam Newton’s incredibly season last year has, the image of Colin Kaepernick on one knee during the anthem will be burned in our minds forever.
It’s an important image. As important as Carlos and Smith, as important as Brown, Ali, Abdul-Jabbar and Russell sitting at that press conference, as important as LeBron James organizing a Heat team photo to honour Trayvon Martin.
Last night, the New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons in a stunning overtime victory that cemented Tom Brady’s legacy as the greatest QB of all time as he won his unprecedented fifth Super Bowl ring.
I didn’t watch. I couldn’t stomach it in the current political climate where Mohamed Sanu had to field questions about a travel ban that would keep other Muslims out for America. Or where Martellus Bennett had state his intent not to go to the White House because of the racist pig who occupies it.
I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. It’s okay if you could. I heard it was a great game. But no thanks. Not right now. Maybe not ever again.
In the fact of all that, the importance of a man in the NFL who stands for something in a climate where hatred and racism are openly expressed by the highest office in the United States become clear.
Numbers don’t matter when it comes to human rights. How well you throw a football seems inconsequential in an era where young black men being murdered by police becomes all-too routine. So much so that so many are desensitized to the horrors and brutality to it.
Tom Brady has nothing on Colin Kaepernick when it comes to being a great human being.
Full disclosure. I am in a relationship with a woman who has a Jamaican mother and a British father. When people look at her they don’t see that. She’s “black” to them. So is her 22 year old brother. When he goes out into the world I worry about him. He’d a great young man, a student with a bright future and never gets into any trouble. But all it takes is one cop.
One cop could ruin everything. That’s how it was for Michael Brown. For Ezell Ford. For Laquan McDonald. For Christian Taylor. For Freddie Gray. And for way too many other young black men in America and here in Canada as well.
That’s who Colin Kaepernick is taking a knee for. Not just the victims but the young men who are still out there and still vulnerable.
There are things in this world bigger than football and for one season when so many other things were going wrong in the world, one man stood up for something good and righteous and just.
Colin Kaepernick is the real MVP.