The San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick shocked much of America last week by refusing to stand for the national anthem. In his own words,
“Ultimately it’s to bring awareness and make people realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust, people aren’t being held accountable for, and that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that — this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.”
His actions have resonated far beyond the sports page. They have spurred passionate reactions from supporters and detractors alike. No less than Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump proclaimed “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try. It won't happen."
Yet Kaepernick’s refusal is no mere partisan political stunt. Indeed he attacked both Trump and Clinton for contributing to the nation’s racism and violent injustice. In a recent interview he stated
“The two presidential candidates that we currently have also represent the issue that we have in this country right now. I mean, you have Hillary [Clinton] who’s called black teens or black kids super-predators. You have Donald Trump who’s openly racist. I mean, we have a presidential candidate who’s deleted emails and done things illegally and is a presidential candidate. That doesn’t make sense to me, because if that was any other person, you’d be in prison. So what is this country really standing for?”
Rather, his actions appear to be a sincere attempt to open a public dialogue about America’s current reality. It is an opportunity to transcend feel good patriotic rituals to ask tough questions regarding the nation’s present and future. Looking past the salacious headlines, it raises serious concerns about whether Americans are actually willing to fight for their freedom or are content to merely sing about it.
Challenging America’s Blind Faith
Standing up and singing the Star-Spangled Banner before sporting events is a time honored American tradition. It is a rousing anthem that champions in song the nation’s values of freedom and liberty for all. It is also meant to remind fans in the stadium and at home that there are more important things that unite us than sporting rivalries.
At the heart of this ritual is a profound contradiction. It too often serves as a force for forgetfulness. In belting out “O say can you see” Americans are allowed to unthinkingly celebrate the USA. They can forget for a moment the illegal invasions of foreign countries that have left millions dead. They can turn the mind away from the black citizens being killed by police with seemingly almost total legal immunity. They can close their eyes to the fact that they are now an oligarchy ruled by corporate elites and their bipartisan political supporters instead of a vibrant democracy governed for, by and of the people.
There is a also a deeper forgetting at play. It is to overlook the country’s history of systematic racism starting with slavery. It is to be given a few minutes pause to close one’s eyes to its tradition of classism at home and economic exploitation abroad. It is a stirring moment of collective amnesia to an America’s past that from the beginning has continually betrayed its avowed commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for many of its citizens as well as those it has oppressed around the world.
Indeed, the national anthem now represents America at its most cultish. It is a living relic of a legacy that treats patriotism as if it were a religion. Thus in declining to stand for it, Kaepernick is publicly challenging the nation’s blind faith.
Making Justice Louder than an Anthem
Kaepernick's rejection of the anthem is therefore a political protest that should not and cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, so much of the coverage is on that action itself as opposed to what it represents.
The tragedy of the anthem is that its music all too commonly drowns out genuine voices for justice. It is a blaring cacophony of American triumph that silences all critical reflection. The tune and the words stir emotions so that those singing it no longer have to hear the cries of its country’s victims.
By remaining seated—itself a silent act—Kaepernick is trying to break through this roar of thoughtless conformity. Already it has brought renewed media attention to the anthem’s ignoble racist roots as well as those of its author Francis Scott Key. The never sung third verse was actually a peon to the endurance of slavery, written at a time when many of those in human bondage by Americans were seeking refuge and actual freedom from the British during the war of 1812:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
To rebuff “the Star-spangled Banner” is not to reject liberty. Rather, the aim of this protest is to force the country to make an honest account of itself. It is to embrace a radical history of protest that has used the anthem to morally confront the nation and move it in the direction of progress. It is to stop mouthing the words of freedom long enough to hear those crying for it to become a reality. It is a willingness to be silent in order to listen to those for whom America is not the land of the free but the home of their repression. In this quiet act, Kaepernick can make the call for justice louder than an anthem.
Sitting Down to Stand Up
Not surprisingly Kaepernick’s protest continues to ignite a public firestorm. There are predictable charges of being “anti-American” that brim with fascist overtones even as it purports to be defending democracy and freedom. There are other more measured critiques that seem to miss the point by focusing on the messenger rather than his message.
At stake is not whether Kaepernick has the right or is right in refusing to stand for the national anthem. It is how its singing can allow Americans to popularly challenge the US to live up to its celebrated ideals. If fans took the time not to rise, it would send a powerful message to lawmakers and economic elites that they were demanding more of their country than merely the façade of liberty and equality.
In a more official capacity, it could be used as an occasion for the nation to publicly admit when it has failed to realize these founding principles. Much like how the flag flies at half mast in respect for the dead, the temporary ban on singing the anthem during times of national crisis would make it all the more meaningful and true when it was deemed acceptable to sing. Simply imagine the emotional and political impact of millions of Americans in stadiums and homes across the country taking a moment of silence to honor the death of an unarmed black man by its police force.
Kaepernick is inspiring the US to take its values seriously as opposed to being a simple appetizer before the main course entertainment of a sporting event. By sitting down, he is challenging Americans to reflect on what they really stand for.