In September of 2016, Colin Kaepernick started what would become a large-scale silent protest against the oppression of people of color in the United States. By kneeling during the national anthem before games, Kaepernick ignited a heated discussion that polarized the nation when the protest become front-page news. Kaepernick explained his reasoning for refusing to stand for the anthem to the media, saying:
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
Kaepernick's form of protest became a huge talking point among football commentators and political pundits alike. While his actions certainly started conversation nationwide, I think the idea got blurry: Kaepernick's form of protest was talked about a lot more than his reason for protesting. I think this odd reaction to such a topic as explosive as police brutality begs the question:
Why is Colin Kaepernick's the wrong voice?
The question does not have an easy answer. Some seem to think that Kaepernick, as a privileged entertainer, should not speak about the oppression of a system in which he has thrived. Others found his decision very disrespectful to troops. And others offered up a simple solution to ease his conscience: leave the country.
Addressing each of these responses individually reveals how shallow they are. Telling entertainers not to speak up is, frankly, hypocritical. "Who are you to talk about these issues?" is easy to counter with "Who are you to criticize someone for using their platform?" This line of thinking is even more problematic when it comes to telling the majority black professional footballers and basketballers to essentially "shut up and play." Entertainers work for their platform and are not beholden to anyone else's opinion. We listen to pundits' critiques, and most are as qualified as the very entertainers we tell to hush about politics. And let's not forget that the people have spoken, and now an entertainer has been elected to the highest fucking office in the world. Thriving off of capitalism does not exclude you from being able to criticize capitalism.
As far the disrespect of the troops, Kaepernick certainly felt the backlash for this the hardest. The first few times he protested the anthem, Kaepernick sat down on the bench instead of standing which offended many, including some other NFL players. One, in particular, a Green Beret named Nate Boyer, wrote an open letter to Kaepernick and addressed his frustration with his seemingly disrespectful protest. However, after talking in person, Boyer and Kaepernick decided to kneel during the anthem was more appropriate. Kaepernick could continue protesting the deaths of unarmed black people while still showing respect for the troops. Boyer explained his thoughts:
"We sort of came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates. Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother's grave, you know, to show respect. When we're on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security."
Of course, this change in protest fell on blind eyes, and the press continued covering the story as if Kaepernick was merely trying to take out some anger towards those that fight for this country. As such, pundits, sports commentators, celebrities and average Joes alike expressed their nationalism by burning the quarterback's jersey or writing thought-pieces on the topic—yet most remained silent on the very thing that caused Kaepernick to want to take a knee.
The argument that someone who criticizes this country should leave it is just dumb. Just because this country is great doesn't mean someone can't complain that some things aren't right.
If you look behind the clickbait headlines, there are better reasons to criticize Kaepernick. For instance, he has been photographed wearing socks featuring pigs dressed as cops. This rhetoric of cops as pigs began in the 60's during protests of the Vietnam War. The analogy persisted as police brutality came to the mainstream again and again beyond the Civil Rights Era and into the 21st century when the issue is just as prevalent but perhaps covered even more in mainstream media since the rise of social media and cellphone usage. This rhetoric is especially inflammatory after the events in Dallas, Texas this summer when a man killed five officers at the end of a peaceful protest regarding the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. That was a stressful week in particular as the three biggest stories in the nation were centered on the tensions between police and people of color reaching a fever-pitch.
To his credit, Kaepernick wore the socks before starting his protest and responded accordingly on social media once the pictures resurfaced. On Instagram, he posted:
“I wore these socks, in the past, because the rogue cops that are allowed to hold positions in police departments not only put the community in danger but also put the cops that have the right intentions in danger by creating an environment of tension and mistrust. I have two uncles and friends who are police officers and work to protect and serve ALL people. So before these socks, which were worn before I took my public stance, are used to distract from the real issues, I wanted to address them immediately.”
Regardless of his apology, the omniscient eye that is the internet won't let Kaepernick avoid this particular wardrobe decision. Nor his decision to not vote in the 2016 presidential election.
So, it seems, Kaepernick's voice is the wrong one for protesting racial inequality because his message is violent—or his protest too disrepectful—or maybe he is too hypocritical.
I argue that the reason Kaepernick's voice is the wrong one is that there is no right voice.
In a polarizing move, on December 1, 2016, Daily Show host Trevor Noah invited the controversial Tomi Lahren onto his show to discuss, among other things, the Black Lives Matter movement, which Tomi had compared to the KKK during one episode of her eponymous program. Depending on if you sit on the left or the right of the political spectrum, either Noah or Lahren got the better of the other during their relatively brief conversation. I simply applaud them both for discussing these issues without going at each other.
One significant sequence was when Noah asked Lahren on her idea for the proper way for an African-American to protest. Lahren is a vocal critic of Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter. He posed the question three times, and each time, Lahren pivoted to other topics. Days after the airing of the interview, Lahren gave an answer on Twitter: "Voting would be a good start. Right Colin? " Fair. But is that a satisfactory answer?
I voted for the first time this year—that can't be all I can do, right?
Sure, social media activism is empty if done alone. There is a huge problem with our media in general in that everyone only views the news on their side—a political echo chamber. Social media reaches a ton of people but only those that subscribe to the ideas of the account. It's easy to ignore the other side and avoid anything that challenges one's views.
Marching in the street has been useful in the past in raising awareness but is always heavily disputed. Protests make people uncomfortable (which is the point) but, as such, those watching can write them off with excuses, like calling protesters "crybabies" or "thugs" and, if things get violent in any instance, attributing the extremism of a few with the entire group.
Obviously, athletes kneeling during the anthem isn't the right way—in fact, speaking up about anything important as an entertainer can cause a firestorm of hate. Many view blocking streets as unruly and classless, though some of the most significant protests in decades past used these same tactics and the reason for blocking a road during a march is probably more important than the inconvenience.
Healthy debate seems impossible—there is always a way to dodge addressing racial inequality. God forbid someone focuses on police brutality instead of talking about black-on-black crime, though one can acknowledge both without pivoting from either of these two problems.
This probably warrants another article all alone but, no, changing course to empty phrases like #AllLivesMatter doesn't add to the conversation—it accomplishes the opposite actually. All lives won't matter until black lives do and "blue lives" can be just as important as black lives—you don't have to choose one or the other. If those that say "No, all lives matter!" really meant what they were saying, they would speak up about an unfair death of an unarmed person with the same vigor in which they attack those that chant "Black lives matter!"
My point is, there is no way for one to air one's grievances and completely avoid criticism from those that don't already see the disapproval as valid.
We look to the Civil Rights Era as the epitome of racial dissent and this great success, but we ignore the different forms of protests and opposition during that time. Remember that during the Civil Rights Era, the popular protests that we now laud as the ultimate catalysts for change were viewed as radical by the general public at the time.
No, Kaepernick is not the right voice—there never will be a right voice, and there has never been. We acknowledge Martin Luther King, Jr. as the champion of the Civil Rights Era, and rightfully so, but we mostly ignore the fact that his message was more nuanced than just the transcript of his "I Have a Dream" speech. We also overlook the fact that the man we now view as peaceful and moderate was arrested dozens of time for his dissent.
Also, King was not the only voice of the Civil Rights Era and his message wasn't the only one—it's just the one that's easiest to teach kids in middle school. There was Malcolm X, seldom mentioned in class because of his more militant messages though his stance was, too, more nuanced than our education would have students believe. There was John Lewis who is best known en masse with the other Freedom Riders of which he was one of the original 12. There were the controversial Black Panthers who did a lot of good if you do even the most shallow research on the topic. There were several voices, several messages, all raising awareness of the same overarching issue of racial inequality, all calling for action and all incredibly polarizing. It is impossible not to be when attempting to address an issue that more than 60% of the country can ignore day-to-day.
You know who the right voice is to speak about these problems? You, who feels like you see something wrong in the world. You know what the best form of protest is? Using what you have to spread a message.
I can write. That's what I do best and one of the things I enjoy most. I know that I can write something well and express how I feel and sometimes, I feel like it would be irresponsible for me not to write about these topics.
Get informed then use your talents to educate others. Avoid the political echo chamber. Use your platform, even if you're an entertainer—I promise you have the same qualifications as most pundits. Tweet. Post to Tumblr. But don't stop there.
Start a group at your school. Educate yourself on the nuances of the issues. If you can't see how someone could think a certain way, open your mind a little to find out—you don't have to agree with someone for you to understand them. Talk to those with whom you disagree.
And, most importantly, don't stop. Don't stop because someone questions your form of protest or writes you off as just a snowflake millennial. Just keep trying to raise awareness, keep pushing for what is right, keep donating your time to causes you feel strongly about, even if you don't have a ton of resources outside of your time.
And also, vote. Get educated on the issues, the candidates, and the policies and then vote. I disagree with almost all of what Tomi Lahren has to say but she's right, it's a good start. But only a start.