A year ago last August, a courageous athlete named Colin Kaepernick took a stand — by refusing to stand. The San Francisco 49ers star quarterback sat through the national anthem before an NFL game. “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 told NFL.com. “This is bigger than football. … There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” he added, referring to the growing number of African-American men gunned down by police with impunity. Much like Rosa Parks, Colin Kaepernick sat down and refused to get up. And like Rosa Parks on that Montgomery bus more than 60 years ago, Colin Kaepernick has sparked a movement.
“What Colin did was not an attack on the anthem. It was not an attack on the military. It was not even an attack on police. It was an attack on injustice,” Dr. Harry Edwards said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. Edwards wrote the seminal book “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” just reissued on the 50th anniversary of its publication. His academic career as a UC Berkeley sociologist focused on the experience of African-American athletes. He is a respected civil-rights activist and adviser to the San Francisco 49ers, where he advised Colin Kaepernick.
Last spring, Kaepernick voluntarily left the 49ers. He has not yet been signed by another team. Many feel he has been blacklisted — or should we say, “whitelisted” — as punishment for his protest, which lasted throughout the 2016-2017 football season.
Despite Kaepernick’s absence, scores of players from across the country have “taken a knee” during the anthem. The growing protest movement on the field, in solidarity with people of color and social-justice movements like Black Lives Matter, against police brutality and the police killing of young, unarmed African-American men was too much for President Donald Trump to take. At a rally in Hunstville, Alabama on Friday, Sept. 22, Trump said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!'” He got the desired response, cheers of “USA! USA!” from his base.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement, “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect … and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.” The NFL has 32 teams; of the 30 that played over the weekend following Trump’s comments, all engaged in some form of protest in solidarity with the players who have chosen to sit or kneel during the anthem. Some raised a fist in the Black Power salute; others simply sat on the bench. Some white players (who comprise 27 percent of NFL players, compared with 70 percent African-Americans) placed a hand on the shoulder of a protesting teammate. Many stood in a line, arms locked together. Some teams stayed in the locker room. Almost every team owner or CEO (many of whom supported Trump when he was campaigning) issued a statement in support of their players’ right to protest. They blasted Trump’s words as divisive, contentious, misguided, uninformed, disappointing, inappropriate and offensive.
Kaepernick launched and funds a free program for youth called Know Your Rights Camp promoting “higher education, self-empowerment, and instruction to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios.” He has donated over $1 million to nonprofit groups around the country that work in oppressed communities.
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“It’s not accidental that Colin Kaepernick moved from protest to programs in pursuit of progress,” Harry Edwards said. “He’s one of the brightest, most articulate and committed people that I have ever come across. I knew Muhammad Ali. I worked with [John] Carlos and [Tommie] Smith [the two U.S. Olympic medalists who raised their fists in the Black Power salute while on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics]. Bill Russell, Jim Brown, some of these people from the 1960s, Arthur Ashe – I put him in that class … I personally am pushing him for a Nobel Peace Prize.”
When asked a year ago what his plans were with the protest action he had taken, Kaepernick said: “I’ll continue to sit. I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed … when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
Principled stands taken at great risk are often how movements are born. As more people “take a knee,” let’s remember the original inspiration for this quiet act of defiance: the hundreds of unarmed people of color killed by police every year, and the need to build a movement to stop it.