“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
– James A. Baldwin
The first time that Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the national anthem, his quiet act of protest attracted little attention. It was only later, when his symbolic decision to withhold turned into a more visible kneel during pre-game ceremonies, that he began to attract the nation’s attention – and ire. Kaepernick’s peaceful protests began as attempts to draw attention to the rampant racial injustice and violent oppression of people of color across America, and have since sparked nationwide conversation not only about racism, but also about the right to protest. While Kaepernick’s actions have been met with an outpouring of support from his fellow players, fans, and even politicians, others have derided his choice to protest as un-American, disrespectful, and inappropriate for the football field. As someone who wholly stands behind Kaepernick and his efforts to draw attention to the crises our nation currently faces, I wonder whether these critics have fully considered the nuanced symbolism of the players’ decisions to take a knee during the anthem – and I would ask: If not now, when? If not us, who?
Some furiously reject the protests as showing disrespect towards the flag, the nation, and even to veterans. A few high schools have banned their students from enacting similar actions before sporting events. Perhaps most memorably, President Trump recently went on tweetstorm railing against players who chose to take a knee before a game; at one point, he even went as far as to call for their termination. Others have suggested that League protests should limit their protests to locker rooms, or hold them after the game. But the problem inherent in both of those solutions is that the symbolism of the protest falls apart when they are hidden away or rescheduled for a less visible time. For better or worse, the actions Kaepernick inspired are so effective only because they are so symbolic, and so in the spotlight.
Moreover, I worry that critics don’t fully understand the nuance reflected in the action of taking a knee. In an article written for the New York Times, 49ers player and Kaepernick’s friend Eric Reid shared the rationale behind choosing that specific gesture as an act of protest. He wrote, “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” The decision to kneel wasn’t meant to express disrespect, but to humbly, peacefully acknowledge an America in pain, an America wracked with social hurt. Those who have kneeled during the anthem are using the visibility of their positions to draw attention to a problem we need to address in our nation – and as the anthem goes, America herself is “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” By that same token, aren’t our players demonstrating patriotism by embracing that freedom and being brave enough to point out America’s flaws? A number of veterans seem to think so. Only recently, a video of a World War II veteran taking the knee went viral with the caption: “These kids have every right to protest.”
Uncomfortable or not, we need the visibility of these protests; we need the conversations they spark. This is a peaceful protest with a needed message. So, I ask again – if not now, when should we protest? When should we stand up against bigotry, brutality, and hurt? If not with Colin Kaepernick, then with who? These questions lie with all of us.