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The Politics of Kneeling: A Tribute to Colin Kaepernick

It takes a dedicated movement, not a string of moments, no matter how searing and memorable, to achieve the deep structural changes that will allow all persons of color to be treated as equal citizens with equal rights.

Colin Kaepernick, decided to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem during the 2016 season, his announced intention was to call attention to racial inequality in the United States, and its ugliest manifestations via excessive uses of deadly force by police against African Americans. (Photo: AP)

Colin Kaepernick, decided to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem during the 2016 season, his announced intention was to call attention to racial inequality in the United States, and its ugliest manifestations via excessive uses of deadly force by police against African Americans. (Photo: AP)

I had long held the image of kneeling as primarily ritual behavior in placesof religious worship, a sign of reverence for the sacred and divine. More broadly, getting down on one’s knees is an expression of submission associated withformal meetings between those of unequal social rank—as when commoners or even nobles interact with kings and queens. In a more metaphoric, and somewhat hypocritical spirit, kneeling has traditionally often been associated with assuming a submissive posture as when men have conveyed marriage proposals to the woman of their dreams, a pre-marital gesture of supplication. A more pragmatic recourse to kneeling is often the sign of a beseeching or well-trained street beggar, seeking our sympathy, most of all a bit of our money. We kneel or crouch, when performing as a grandparent, seeking to be less intimidating to our young and small grandchild. Whatever else, it is perverse to consider a kneeling person to be a defiant or subversive citizen. When citizens are denied the right to exhibit their deepest concerns about injustice democracy is dead! When citizens are punished or chastised for kneeling democracy is dying!

When the NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, decided to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem during the 2016 season, his announced intention was to call attention to racial inequality in the United States, and its ugliest manifestations via excessive uses of deadly force by police against African Americans. Kneeling, for the reasons noted above is a respectful and dignified way for a public figure to communicate their deepest felt concerns to a wider public, and contrasts with turning one’s back while the National Anthem is playing, and is a far more gentle reminder of injustice than raising a defiant clenched fist as the African American Olympic athletes, Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos, did during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem as is customary at the medal ceremony to honor the country of the athlete winning a competition as occurred in Mexico City after the 200 meters race at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Such a deliberately militant show of identification by way of the Black Power Salute was at the time controversial (supposedly politicizing the Olympics as if tallying the overall winner by the number of medals a country has won is apolitical!). It should also be remembered that 1968 was a tumultuous year during which both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. It struck me at the time as an effective nonviolent means of conveying an urgent moral, social, and political message that all was not well when it came to race relations in the United States, and if racial injustices were not addressed, massive suffering would persist, and could give rise to bloody conflict and strife. Smith later explained that the clenched fist was meant as  ‘a human rights salute’ rather than a ‘black power salute,’ but the distinction was hardly noticed at the time, and even had it been, I doubt that its intention would have been to shift our perception from ‘militant’ to ‘liberal’ or from ‘political’ to ‘humanitarian’?

Such displays of outrage by prominent athletes or entertainers are often denounced, especially by reactionary talk show hosts and reactionary politicians, insisting that athletes and entertainers are being paid millions for doing what they are superbly skilled at doing, but they have no credibility when it comes to declaring their unwelcome opinions on controversial societal issues. Such individuals are even instructed to renounce normal rights as citizens because speaking out would be taking unfair advantage of their notoriety. To engage in political advocacy or to promote a social cause such as racial equality or justice and equality for gay and trans people is treated by such monitors of propriety as crossing a red line. I would contend the opposite. Athletes and entertainers of conscience are the canaries in the mines of modern societies in North America and Europe, bearing witness often to their own unhealed wounds received from childhood experiences, neighborhood encounters, and personal struggles that many of us have been spared.

Kaepernick’s act was brave and had an impact, and partly because it dared violate sports etiquette by putting at risk his professional life, and also served as an early warning of the kind of volcanic feelings of pent up anger and distrust that came from generations of racial abuse in America. It is not surprising that Kaepernick’s ‘statement’ should now be remembered and intoned by protesters in the streets, but that it is also being reevaluated in the board rooms of NFL billionaire owners and league officials is less a surprise than a sign that the protest sweeping America might be beginning to make difference. It also should be appreciated that it took the martyrdom of George Floyd to redeem Kaepernick’s initiative that should have been heeded in the manner intended rather than shifted to a trivializing debate about whether kneeling during the National Anthem was a form of wrongdoing rather than what it was, a dignified exercise of the right of free expression on an unresolved issue of great gravity. We in America need to grasp our crucial dependence on acts of conscience by public figures and by whistleblowers with insider information about state crime if we have any hope at all of preserving democracy in the face of fascist style assaults on the rule of law and citizen dissent.

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Of course, do not wait for Donald Trump to rethink any of his past appalling behavior on matters of either race or justice. Trump has made it a signature trait to double down on his worst missteps in these domains. It was Trump who called a player who kneeled ‘a son of a bitch,’ who deserved to be fired by club owners. He insisted that Kaepernick was showing disrespect for flag and country by kneeling, which he with typical unknowing arrogance compared to ‘sitting.’ He urged suspensions and disciplinary action, leading Trump’s fan base to boo whenever any player knelt in solidarity with Kaepernick. Trump showed no remorse when Kaepernick’s exercise of free agency resulted in no offers of a contract from any NFL team, and he soon discovered that he was improperly rendered unemployable. Such a punitive pushback was so excessive and abusive that Kaepernick filed a formal complaint in accord with the League’s grievance procedures, negotiating a confidential agreement, presumably a financial settlement that avoided a costly legal battle over innocent behavior that severely damaged his professional reputation with the result that he was unable to continue his outstanding career as a football player.

Thankfully, Roger Goodall, the Commissioner of the National Football League, is not Donald Trump. He has at least and at last issued an apology, belatedly urging teams to hire Kaepernick,  and even acknowledginging the impropriety of his past actions. This reappraisal has been reinforced by the comment of Kaepernick’s coach, Chip Kelly, who said that his protest move had a ‘zero distraction’ effect on the team. Kaepernick, even before Floyd’s death, received several awards from many human rights NGOs, in recognition that his action were justified, and deserved commendation not censure. The players on the San Francisco 49ers’ team likewise recognized his contributions by naming Kaepernick the recipient in 2016 of the Len Eshmont Award for best epitomizing the courageous and inspirational play of Len Eshmont, a beloved former player for the 49ers. A comprehensive assessment of the incident by two psychologists in the Scientific American ended with these words from its authors, Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Kettner: “Will Americans one day look back on Kaepernick’s symbolic act as a moment when we started to understand each other just a little bit better?” [“The Psychology of Taking a Knee,” Scientific American, June 2020]

Of course, there have been many Kaepernick moments that stretch back to the era of slavery, and forward to Rosa Parks’ 1956 refusal to go to the back of the bus sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott , King’s 1963 letter from the Birmingham Jail, and the death of George Floyd, some more resonant than others, but none have been enough to remove the darks stains of systemic racism from the fabric of daily life in America, and elsewhere in the world. It takes a dedicated movement, not a string of moments, no matter how searing and memorable, to achieve the deep structural changes that will allow all persons of color to be treated as equal citizens with equal rights, and until that feeling exists among those previously victimized, there will be inter-racial ceasefires, but no enduring peace.

The challenge is resoundingly clear, but up until now the response is not. Racism in America has over and over again proven its lethal resilience.

Richard Falk

Richard Falk

Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. An international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years, since 2002 Falk has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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