Erika D. Smith

Colin Kaepernick, the unexpected leader, is finding his voice

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid and quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara on Sept. 12, 2016.
San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid and quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara on Sept. 12, 2016. The Associated Press

The first time Colin Kaepernick refused to pull himself off the bench, remaining seated among the Gatorade buckets during the national anthem, I wonder if he ever imagined that, one day soon, young athletes all over the country would be copying him.

That high school and college football players would be taking a knee during “The Star Spangled Banner.” Or that an entire WNBA team would do it, along with a growing number of NFL players.

Or that he would infuriate so many military veterans that President Barack Obama would have to weigh in – not once, but twice. Or, perhaps most implausibly, that he would end up on the cover of Time, his kinky hair in cornrows, on one knee in his San Francisco 49ers uniform, staring off into the distance.

“The perilous fight,” the magazine proclaims in its Oct. 3 issue. “National anthem protests led by Colin Kaepernick are fueling a debate about privilege, pride and patriotism.”

My guess is, nope, the biracial kid from Turlock didn’t see any of this coming. He didn’t know he’d be leading a movement. He’s not that strategic.

My guess is one day Kaepernick just got fed up with the police shootings of black people, with the invisible hand of institutional racism and, most of all, with the demands for justice that too often end in political spin. And so he sat down and then, out of respect for the military, thought better of it and kneeled down.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said in late August. He hasn’t changed his story.

I’ve been there. There aren’t too many black Americans – and Kaepernick does mostly identify with his black heritage – who haven’t been. It’s hard for me to look at the flag with unadulterated pride. And it’s impossible to sing the national anthem without feeling conflicted.

It’s why, in the third grade, stubborn as I was, I refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. My teacher stopped threatening to punish me for it after about a month.

Kaepernick has tapped into this squeamishness that many Americans feel, but have pushed down for fear of being labeled unpatriotic. Without a doubt, he has started a movement among athletes – one inextricably linked to the larger Black Lives Matter movement – that particularly resonates with millennials.

Now many people, shocked by the speed of it all, are struggling to understand why. Why Kaepernick, who isn’t healthy enough to be a starting quarterback and, for years, was known not for activism, but for kissing his biceps in self-adulation and making insensitive comments on social media.

And how? How is this is sustainable, especially after the latest dust-up in which Kaepernick, asked about the first presidential debate, leveled criticism at Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?

“It was embarrassing to watch,” Kaepernick told reporters. “Both are proven liars and it almost seems like they’re trying to debate who’s less racist.”


Understandably, that didn’t go over well with the president of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks, or the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who are Clinton supporters and accustomed to seeing the world through the calculated lens of national politics. Kaepernick’s words also raised questions about whether he is the right person to lead a movement against racial injustice that needs as much public attention as it does public policy solutions.

Is he ready? Depends on how you look at it.

First, one reason Kaepernick is receiving so much attention is because of the cause. How many people outside Salida know he sponsors a camp for children with heart disease? Police treatment of people of color is a highly polarized issue, and millions of Americans of all races have deep concerns about it.

It’s not hard to understand why. As of Friday, police have killed 715 people this year, according to The Washington Post, which has been tracking it. That’s more than two people per day.

In just the last couple of weeks, Charlotte, N.C., has erupted in riots after officers shot a black man sitting in his car, an officer in Tulsa was charged in the death of an unarmed motorist, and protests in El Cajon have devolved into violence over the killing of an unarmed, mentally ill man whose mother initially called officers seeking help.

And in Sacramento, after the release of video showing police trying to run over and later shooting a knife-wielding, mentally ill man named Joseph Mann, the mayor and City Council have started a major push for reforms within the department. This is true even though the results of the investigation into the officers who fired the fatal bullets won’t be known for months.

With all of these things going on, there’s something satisfying about seeing Kaepernick defiantly taking a knee week after week. People recognize the risk of someone telling an unpopular truth.

Cornel West reflected on this during his speech Thursday night at Sacramento State.

“These days, integrity and honesty taken seriously will make you countercultural,” he bellowed in the University Union Ballroom.

Kaepernick, like West, is perfectly fine being countercultural – and I would argue that the cause of righting racial injustice needs him to be. Kaepernick will continue to gain respect, and criticism, for speaking his mind. He will never be the kind of measured spokesperson that the NAACP wants him to be. And that’s OK.

West, when I tracked him down backstage, put it best. “The movement doesn’t have to have just one leader. We’re a people of many leaders.”

Kaepernick operates in a world where he can afford to be blunt, direct and authentic. He’s a quarterback who gets paid millions of dollars to play a game. He can afford to wear socks with cartoon pigs dressed as policemen, and then decide that’s not such a good idea and stop wearing them.

Clinton does not operate in that world. Unless you’re Trump, being an effective politician and changing public policy requires taking calculated risks, compromising, being tight-lipped about one’s feelings and, yes, sometimes fudging the truth. It’s sad, but true.

West called on millennials not to become disillusioned with politics and to take risks for what they believe. I would add to that, be reasonable when you go to the polls. Politicians and activists are different kinds of leaders, but we need both to create real change.

As for Kaepernick, he has a microphone that he probably never expected to have. I hope he’s wise enough to make the most of it.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith