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Why I got off the sidelines to back Colin Kaepernick

Players talk about joining 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in racial injustice protest

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem to shed light on racial injustice. His actions have spread across the NFL as other players are showing signs of support.
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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem to shed light on racial injustice. His actions have spread across the NFL as other players are showing signs of support.

I’ve resisted writing about Colin Kaepernick, the 49er quarterback pilloried for refusing to stand during the national anthem, because I thought his gesture and the virulent reaction to it amounted to little more than a social-media tempest in a teapot.

It was just another story that divided people along ideological or racial lines. It was another story, like immigration or Black Lives Matter, that had people trapped in the echo chambers of their pre-existing beliefs and there was no persuading them to consider an alternative point of view.

Kaepernick, who has said he’s protesting police brutality and the oppression of black Americans, is of mixed race. After the media zeroed in on his refusal to stand (he had done it for two weeks before anyone noticed), his Twitter account was bombarded with the “N” word and he became a bull’s-eye for a national game of target practice.

The remarks seemed to be more about the messenger than the message. Detractors took aim at Kaepernick’s life – his Afro, his dark features, his white adoptive parents, his affluence, his lack of on-field success in recent years – and then fired away. It has remained largely irrelevant to Kaepernick’s critics that his protest isn’t harming anyone. How dare he refuse to stand for an anthem and a country that has given him so much? He should remain quiet, respect tradition and show some gratitude.

In reality, whether Kaepernick stands, sits or kneels during the anthem will not change the lives of military families who have lost loved ones in armed conflicts around the world. Furthermore, NFL rules don’t require Kaepernick to stand during the anthem, and the U.S. Constitution allows him and the rest of us the freedom to express our opinions.

Personally, I stand and put my hand on my heart during the anthem, even as I’ve wondered for years why the song has to be played at sporting events. But really, why should I care if Kaepernick takes a knee or not? Frankly, there are more important stories in our community and nation that don’t get nearly as much attention as this one does.

I’ve seen people on my Facebook page railing about Kaepernick for weeks. Meanwhile, the story about a mentally ill black man shot 16 times and killed by Sacramento police in July? Outside of the African American community, I could describe the reaction to that story in one word: Crickets.

For me, the sustained anger over Kaepernick and the lack of anger – or even shock or concern – over the shooting of Joseph Mann crystallized a point I was failing to see. The point is that Kaepernick has a point, and his gesture has made police brutality an inescapable topic while changing the way we talk about sports and patriotism.

Kaepernick is still a young man and his newly developed social consciousness can lack sophistication. Wearing socks of pigs in police uniforms only detracts from his message. His knowledge of the issue at hand also is lacking in nuance. He said he wore the pig socks to protest “rogue” cops. And while he may be focused on the officers involved in shootings, the issue runs much deeper and involves institutions – and elected officials – who can shield an officer who may have wrongly used deadly force.

The police unions circle the wagons and speak of how cops are put in terrible situations and threatened daily by mentally ill people like Mann. And while it’s true that police officers risk their lives all the time to protect the public, how will we know what happened in the Mann case if we’re not allowed to see any video footage, when the city won’t even tell us its complete policy for patrol-car cameras, when politicians are under orders from the city attorney not to talk publicly about the incident?

So even though his knowledge of the issue of police shootings may lack some nuance, Kaepernick is making a broader point that deserves broader attention. The institutions themselves – the police departments and the cities that pay the officers and protect them from scrutiny – need to be challenged. There is no way to challenge them without upsetting someone. There is no way to protest without upsetting someone. And there is no way to hold police and politicians accountable to the public without upsetting them.

The nature of protest is to challenge. And you know what? I came off the sidelines on the Kaepernick protest because he’s not only within his rights – he is right. Police tactics and the use of deadly force must be challenged.

The Washington Post in 2015 launched a database tracking fatal police shootings nationwide. As of July, there had been more than 1,500 people shot and killed by officers in the line of duty. Nearly a quarter of those killed by police were African American, even though African Americans are only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population. In one in five of these cases, the departments refused to name the officers involved in the shooting.

A friend of mine, who is African American, told me he hates Kaepernick’s protest because it condemns institutions instead of a few bad people within them. My friend is sincere, but he’s wrong. As we’re seeing in Sacramento, the good people in our local government won’t talk about what’s going on. So what are we left with? Institutions that are filled with good people, but are not responsive to the public and are resistant to change.

The act of protest is central to our national identity. The act of protest is rarely, if ever, applauded in the moment. People loved Muhammad Ali years after the passions of the Vietnam War cooled and his resistance to military service in that now infamous conflict was revealed as a righteous act.

Oh, and let’s not our kid ourselves. People liked Ali much better when he was an old man debilitated by Parkinson’s disease then they did when he was big and bad.

I truly thought this weeks-old Kaepernick story was sure to go away once the NFL season started. But it hasn’t gone away. Other players have followed suit, even as Kaepernick has been vilified by other sports people – including African Americans.

It’s why I ultimately came to his side. It takes guts to stick your neck out and do so with the dignity he has shown for most of his protest.

Reasonable people can disagree and meaningful debate is a fundamental part of our democracy. But those who vilify Kaepernick, who blame the messenger but ignore the message? They have issues of their own.