September 12,2016. Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback is all over the news lately for kneeling! As quarterback for one of the most respected teams in professional football, he is a former MVP for a Superbowl winner and a successor to the likes of Joe Montana. But his play on the field is of small interest compared to the passions aroused by his decision to kneel for a few the traditional pre-game performance of the national anthem. His refusal to stand for the Star Spangled Banner was made much more dramatic by the fact this first Forty Niner game was in San Diego, long home to one of the country’s largest military and naval concentrations. There is now a media frenzy. Millions of Americans are adding to the commercial hoopla by pouring out personal and copied postings on the social network. On Sunday September 11 half a dozen other NFL players joined the demonstration by kneeling as the anthem was played in their venues.
More than a few of those postings and media commentaries have been based on the notion that the national anthem is the special symbol of our military. If the anthem is the special symbol of military service, then Kaepernick was disrespecting the patriotic sacrifices of military services. For his part the football player was clear that he means to withhold respect from a nation that oppresses people of color. He is not criticizing military service! His concern is the killing of black folks by policemen. In this nation the police are supposed to be protecting and serving them.
There have been efforts in the not-so-distant past to use the anthem as a way of protesting the uses of the American military. Jimi Hendrix’ dramatic rendition of the anthem comes to mind. In his hands the electric guitar became the simultaneous source of the anthem and the sounds of bombs falling in Vietnam. Yeah, Hendrix was clearly criticizing this country what he believed was a foul use of military force. And the interruption of the anthem during some sporting events got headlines for the antiwar movement of the 60s and 70s. But the closest thing I can remember to the Kaepernick protest was the raising of black gloved fists on the victory stand in the 1968 Olympics. Colin Kaepernick is saying very clearly that he will not salute a nation that uses its law enforcement personnel to commit the most horrendous act of lawlessness there is–murder.
Should not the rest of us support him in his sentiment? We know he is pointing at a terrible truth. Whether we like his means of expression is a separate question. Many of us will wish he had chosen another. But we cannot deny that his expression is peaceful and that it demonstrates moral courage and conviction. Should not that be enough? Since when is it patriotic to condemn an American for protesting police misbehavior? Was not that kind of protest at the heart of our revolution, at the bottom of our decision to create the country for which that flag stands and that anthem is played?
Before you condemn Kaepernick please recall the Boston Massacre. Please remember that British soldiers acting as policemen shot down those who were peacefully protesting. The patriots of that day condemned the shootings by showing disrespect for the British government. Some of those symbolic acts of disrespect were aimed at the British flag and other national symbols. Maybe this is a good time to remember that one of those killed by policemen in that incident in Boston was Crispus Atticus, an African American. Colin Kaepernick’s protest is as American as the anthem he refuses to stand for.