A protest is defined as “a complaint, objection, or display of unwillingness usually to an idea or course of action.” A protest is designed to bring attention an injustice that has taken place, because there is an assumed belief that if an injustice can be made public, it will be eliminated as it violates the ethics of a self-proclaimed civilized society.
Protests have taken place throughout American history. From the Boston Tea Party to Nat Turner, Rosa Parks to Caesar Chavez and Dr. King, we are a nation that in the face of injustice, illuminates issues and speaks truth to power. The problem with protests in America, however, is that justice has never been defined by fairness or equity, but rather by who is in power.
– America protested British rule by throwing tea into the Boston Harbor. It led to war.
– Nat Turner was killed for his slave revolt.
– Rosa Parks, Caesar Chavez, and Dr. King were all arrested for their peaceful protests, with the later ultimately losing his life in the fight to raise awareness of injustice.
Protests are not meant to be pleasant and polite. They are meant to be a disruption to perceived reality. They are a signal that there is something broken in the world, an invitation to say, “Look! Who we are and who we say we want to be do not align.” And because it is a disruption, it will also expose the motives of the hearts. It reveals who experiences and benefits from injustice, who suffers it and who is blind to it.
Enter the National Football League and 45. A little over a year ago, Colin Kaepernick started sitting and eventually taking a knee because of racial injustice and the unarmed shooting of Black men and women around the United States without a single conviction of a police officer anywhere to date. Like so many others, his complaint was not against all police, but officers whose actions have violated the laws that govern our land who spilled blood without consequence. Knowing millions of people where watching, he placed a megaphone and microscope in front of America. His knee screamed pay attention, and it asked the focus be specifically on the way Black people have historically been treated by law enforcement.
What has followed is not an indictment on Kaepernick dividing America or distracting from football, but the exposing of just how much we have not progressed in race relations. Not only is Mr. Kaepernick without a job–if he even still wants to work in the NFL–but his actions have been attacked from multiple angles.
Look at the responses.
1. Kneeling is an affront to the flag and the military. In debate, one of the first lessons you learn is to never reduce an argument to “ad hominem”, attacking the person rather than addressing the facts of the case. This is precisely what many Americans have done. Mr. Kaepernick’s loyalty to America and the military have been questioned. He has openly stated he has nothing but respect for both, and that it is because of the nation in which we live (that place that says it’s “the land of the free and the home of the brave”) that he does protests. Not everyone is free, and too many live in fear rather than demonstrate bravery. Socrates once said, “When the debate is lost, slander becomes the weapon of the loser.” Attacking Colin not only waters down the counter-argument, it exposes the ignorance and complacency of the beneficiaries of injustice.
2. He’s distracting from the game. Yes. Yes, he is. That’s what a protest is. He’s waving a proverbial flag when he knows the most amount of people are watching to bring attention an issue. That’s what a protest is. (And technically, kneeling isn’t distracting from the game. It’s kneeling for maybe 90 seconds, unless Aretha Franklin is singing. Then you may be down there a while.)
3. Protest someplace other than during the game. Why? Racial injustice is disruption to lives of men and women who experience it everyday. By protesting during a form of entertainment, you raise awareness at an inconvenient time for someone for the purposes of demonstrating on a much lesser level what disruption feels like. Dismissing a protest because it is inconvenient exposes the apathy of one’s heart that we are more concerned with touchdowns than dead bodies in our streets.
4. Protests don’t solve problems. In his timeless article, “Letters from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote that there are four stages in Civil Disobedience. First, has an injustice occurred? Second, have meetings with leaders and law enforcement taken place to see if the injustice can be corrected? Third, if there are no attempts to correct the injustice, leaders are to consecrate themselves and prepare for step four, which is a peaceful protest which causes enough disruption that those in power correct the original problem. As one colleague, Tamice Spencer, just wrote, “Entertainment is a luxury, not a right.” Kneeling disrupts the luxurious because someone’s rights have been violated. Kneeling didn’t created the problem, and kneeling won’t solve it. It does illuminate it.
The basic rule of storms is that they continue until the imbalance that created them is corrected. Kneeling during a football game has not, cannot, and will not lead to any solutions in America.
Kneeling during a football game, however, can send a clear message to the world that far too many Americans would rather say and do everything possible than deal with its original sin of racism and inequality.
Dr. King said years ago, “All we are saying to America is be true to what you said on paper. If I lived in…any other totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
Could it be that perhaps our problem as a nation is not the kneeling of football players but rather that we do not want to be who claim we want to be? Is it possible that the ideals we have written down are intellectual ideals impotent of moral and social power? Could it be that we really do not care what happens to people beyond the walls of our own house?
If so, then we need to change the name of the country and the words of the national anthem. Let’s call it the Divided States of America, and sing about the land of the rich and the home of the blind.
If not, if we truly care, then perhaps we should all take a knee in sorrowful repentance, not because it’s the new trend, but because we actually think those “sons of b!tches” on the field are worthy of honor and respect whether they are wearing a jersey, an Afro, a suit, or a hoodie.
Sean M. Watkins