On Friday, professional athlete Colin Kaepernick gained international headlines when he demonstrated disrespect for Americans by sitting down during the playing of the national anthem at a preseason football match conducted between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers. His actions likely outraged most people who read news headlines afterwards, yet he refused to apologize.
He later explained that he would not stand up to signify his pride in a nation which “oppresses black people and people of color”. The athlete noted the streets reveal a body count. Asserting that some individuals have received “paid leave” after perpetrating murder (an apparent reference to police officers on leave while superiors evaluate their actions in shootings) he contended that even standing up for the national anthem would represent selfishness on his part.
Some editorials, such as Jenee Desmond-Harris writing in Vox online on August 27th, argue that many Black protesters face a double-bind when they express their views. With higher than average rates of unemployment, Black Americans sometimes encounter difficulty locating compensated employment. Dismissals of protests which argue the aggrieved protesters should stop complaining and “get a job” in order to produce productive results overlook this embarrassing national labor statistic.
By contrast, successful Black NFL stars face an opposite tack when they protest: they appear ungrateful for the success and affluence society bestowed upon them. Public perception focuses on their wealth and discounts the sincerity of their motivations as grandstanding. Jenee Desmond-Harris concludes rather bitterly that this paradox effectively undermines Black protest across the economic spectrum.
Today, millions of Americans appreciate that the right to protest remains an intrinsic value embedded deeply within American society. Yet protests such as the display made by someone refusing to rise for the national anthem goes beyond complaining about injustice. It implies that the framework underlying the national anthem cannot correct a perceived wrong. In short, it rejects the democratic system of values shared by the American population as a whole. Colin Kaepernick refuses to give police officers accused of wrongful shootings their day in court. He asserts the power to judge and pass sentence over them without so much as a trial.
Taking measures to display disrespect for the Constitution and the adversarial system of justice established centuries ago in the USA in a sense represents an anti-nationalistic, blatantly unpatriotic and anti-democratic form of protest. What distinguishes this type of public display from anti-American demonstrations like the one outside the U.S. consulate in Benghazi a few years ago? Should aggrieved protesters have to respect an embassy from a country they hold in contempt?
Recall that in the past, protesters as diverse as Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chaves, Jane Fonda, and David Dukes have all risen for the national anthem in public forums. None of those individuals claimed to dislike the United States as a racist system unable to correct its own injustices. The goal of most protests has been to right perceived wrongs within the American system, not to toss out the flag and trial by jury itself.
Colin Keapernick indicated he may no longer stand alongside other NFL players during the playing of the national anthem in the future. He certainly remains entitled to his unpatriotic views, although whether NFL fans and team owners will want to continue to provide a public backdrop to showcase his protests remains questionable. News reports surfaced that he may soon find himself off the NFL roster.