Since Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, began sitting for the national anthem during the National Football League’s preseason, national anthem protests have surged into the national spotlight. Across the country, athletes from around the NFL and from other sports have joined, some taking knees and some raising fists — an homage to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ 1968 Black Power Olympic protest — yet all recognizably taking part in the same demonstration.
The protests have prompted a barrage of outrage, support and discussion. The story has been widely covered in the mainstream media, and is routinely discussed on sports channels and in social media. Whether or not Kaepernick planned it this way, he has kicked off a phenomenal episode of civil resistance against racism and police violence.
Organizers and activists should take note. It is easy to get trapped in the repertoires of tactics we are used to and comfortable with. This moment is a reminder of how sometimes the most powerful and effective tactics are right in front of us. Black Lives Matter and the larger racial justice movement it is a part of have been skilled in using disruptive maneuvers that are both creative and simple, such as highway blockades. Similarly, with a simple action, national anthem protests have pushed the envelope in new directions.
Civil resistance takes all kinds of shapes and forms, but at its best it does three related things: it disrupts the status quo, dramatizes a social injustice and forces people to choose a side. Better yet, it has replicable tactics that are easy to do and difficult to punish. The more clearly the action itself points to its meaning, and the more it raises pulses on all sides, the more powerful it is. Ideal tactics can be taken up by anyone without affiliation or directions. The national anthem protest does all of this. What’s more, in the context of a movement that is often maligned for its few violent episodes, it is an unequivocally nonviolent action.
The protest began with professional football players but was quickly taken up by athletes from other sports and at all levels. Now it has spread to spectators. In less than two months since Kaepernick first sat for the anthem, protesting the national anthem has become what The Atlantic called the “new normal.” This action has the potential to occupy areas of social life that have been insulated from politics and infuse them with a racial justice imperative.
Perhaps the most famous example of nonviolent direct action in the United States is the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement. By simply sitting in places that had been marked “whites only,” black activists shocked and infuriated those who took Jim Crow segregation for granted. The response was extreme and violent, while images and stories of the protests and repression spread across the country (and world) like wildfire. With the growing tension, it became more and more difficult to not take a side, making it easier for those who supported racial justice to speak up and more difficult for those who supported segregation to hide their racism.
“Rules for Radicals” author and organizer Saul Alinksy once suggested — as a strategy against a department store with racist hiring policies — that thousands of black activists flood a flagship location, shop around all day, tie up staff with questions and clog checkout lines. The shopper-activists would each buy something small, charge it, and have it shipped to them, where they would later refuse delivery and demand a refund. This could be repeated indefinitely, and — while being completely legal — would ultimately wreck the store’s operations. Management would not be able to ignore the protest, but any attempt to attack it would backfire. In chess this kind of situation is known as zugzwang, or putting one’s opponent in a situation where any move they make worsens their position.
By sitting (and later kneeling) during the national anthem, at a time and in a place when people are expected to stand and face the flag in a sign of respect and devotion to the country, Kaepernick moved us toward such a moment on a grand scale. Through people’s reactions, the protest exposed the deep but otherwise hidden meanings lurking beneath the national symbols we often take for granted.
The anthem is not just a song to many people. What exactly this song means — particularly to many white people — is revealed in their response to a person of color not doing what he is supposed to do while it is playing. Sitting and kneeling aren’t particularly disrespectful postures (it is not as though he raised his middle finger for the anthem), but the simple public sign of quiet disobedience cuts deep. The tension between the action and the reactions forces public discussions, which expose the racism that often intersects with patriotism, and evoke the white supremacy that resides at the core of our national culture. In one simple move, the national anthem protest shines light on a virtual powder keg of racial and political realities.
Anywhere the national anthem is played, people are now able to politicize the space in a legible way. Arenas or locales could make rules mandating that people stand and place their hand on their heart, but this would only make them look desperate and intensify the drama around protesters. Alternatively, imagine the momentum (and the venomous reaction) it would generate if some venues stopped playing the national anthem altogether in order to prevent protest scenes.
The elegance of the national anthem protest lies in its simplicity. It takes courage to do it — for some, like individual high school students, extraordinary bravery — but nothing else (i.e. no resources, no training or minimal coordination). Right now, many players who do it are ridiculed or asked to explain why. If the protest builds, teammates who remain standing will have the gaze turned on them; they will have to answer for why they refuse to participate. The more spectators kneel or raise fists, the more uncomfortable it will get to proceed with business as usual. The symbolic power is massive and the possibilities for escalation are vast.
Kaepernick has reintroduced a brilliant tactic that hits hard and cannot be silenced. He started it (this time around) and thus his name is associated with it, but he does not own it, in the sense that anyone can take it up and make it theirs. The tactic has no specific demands attached to it; it is a raw, unambiguous condemnation of an intolerable status quo. With an action that is replicable in all kinds of arenas and so simple with all of its varieties that anyone can participate, the national anthem protests represent an escalation in the broad movement for black lives into a sacred space of sports, which had previously been a refuge for many from the political realities of this country.