Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Taking a Knee

When the intent of a message is so grossly misrepresented, I waffle between believing that people have been duped, and believing that they know better and are misrepresenting as a smokescreen.

Let’s look at the facts.

This is not a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment only protects people from arrest, it does not guarantee us a blanket right to express ourselves in all situations, including at work, at school, at a business, etc.

Colin Kaepernick stopped standing for the National Anthem to draw attention to police brutality and racially-biased policing. That was his intent. He was standing up for injustice by not standing up. That is the fact.

He wasn’t doing it to disrespect this country or members of the military, nor was he inadvertently disrespecting our military. It was Army Special Forces veteran Nate Boyer who saw Kaepernick sitting on the bench during the Anthem, and suggested instead that he kneel instead.

We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammate. Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect.” – Nate Boyer

So the decision to specifically kneel during the Anthem was to show respect for members of the military while making his protest. His silent, peaceful protest.

This country prides itself on dissent; it was founded on principles of speaking up against injustice; of protests and demonstrations; of taking a stand. Demonstrations, peaceable, destructive, and even violent, were what birthed this nation (think of the Boston Tea Party). So to suggest that his protest was un-American is simply nonfactual.

And to suggest that his protest was anti-military is also nonfactual. Not only did he build in a way to show his respect, active duty military and veterans do not as a group condemn him. In fact, many have spoken out in support of what he did. You will undoubtedly find folks whose opinions on it run the full spectrum from applauding him to vilifying him. And if you have not ever been a member of the military, you (and I) don’t get to speak for them.

I do know however that members of the military do not take an oath to our flag. They take an oath to our Constitution. So it’s a stretch to say that not standing at attention to our flag insults our veterans.

Kaepernick’s protest was to call attention to biased and violent policing. That’s what it was about, full stop. To suggest otherwise is not factual.

To address the actual message of his protest, police brutality and racially biased policing, statistics overwhelmingly bear out that black people are disproportionately impacted by our laws and criminal justice system.

“Mass incarceration has not touched all communities equally… Sentencing policies, implicit racial bias, and socioeconomic inequity contribute to racial disparities at every level of the criminal justice system. Today, people of color make up 37% of the U.S. population but 67% of the prison population. Overall, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men.” – The Sentencing Project (

racial disparities [exist]
at every level of the 
criminal justice system

To argue that there isn’t racial bias in policing, or our overall criminal justice system, is not factual. And for those of us who are white, by virtue of different vantage point, we simply cannot speak to the impacts of this on black people. I do not and can not know what it means to grow up in a country that stole and enslaved my ancestors, then went from slavery to Jim Crow and lynchings, to redlining and other systemic racial discrimination, to the staggering impact of the criminal justice system in today’s black families and communities.

Colin Kaepernick was quietly and peacefully saying: stop killing black people.

For those who believe Kaepernick was calling all cops racist, consider this: I was a law enforcement officer. During that time I had no reason to believe that any of the officers I knew engaged in racially biased policing. I felt quite confident that wasn’t the case; or if it was, it was for certain that rare bad apple.

It was the story of Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of vigilante George Zimmerman that started to change my awareness of this issue. Zimmerman, of course, was not a police officer; but his profiling of Martin, and aggression towards him, seemed racially motivated. But what most caught my attention was the way this story divided the nation. I was completely taken aback that so many people believed Zimmerman was justified, and the lengths they went to trying to portray Martin as the aggressor.

From there I started paying more attention to stories of black people dying at the hands of law enforcement. I started to read more opinions and articles on the issue and worked to better educate myself on the realities to which I’d been mostly oblivious.

It was extremely painful, and took a long time, for me to let go of the belief that it was “only a few bad apples.” I learned about the enduring history of racist policing. Racism is at the very roots of the law enforcement system in this country. Entire departments, cities, and counties have been found guilty of egregious violations against people of color – from planting evidence, to implementing cruel treatment during incarceration, to acting with violence for no other reason than that black people were considered dangerous by virtue of the color of their skin.

I still know a great many ethical, non-racist law enforcement officers. But now I also know the greater context: racism was built into our criminal justice system; it is pervasive, and cannot be eradicated simply by having non-racist cops. Its pervasiveness ensures that it will endure until and unless it is ruthlessly rooted out.

Many, many police officers who believe in serving their communities find themselves having to compromise their values (whether in large ways, or very small) in order to keep their jobs or to entertain hopes of advancing their career. Many, many police officers (just like many, many citizens) cannot help but be influenced by implicit bias – a very deep subconscious bias against people of color, that is the unfortunate birthright of every white person in this country.

Being good cops, not being racist, will not solve the racism that is built into the criminal justice system. Being good people, not being racist, will not solve racism in this country.

What I can do, what you can do, is believe that there is a valid reason for these protests; we can believe those who are directly impacted by it. We can listen to the perspectives of those who are immersed in it. We can pay attention to the news and the alarmingly different ways white and black people are treated both by the criminal justice system and by the media. And we can learn about the statistics that back up claims of racial bias.

The NFL most likely has the right to impose restrictions on kneeling during the National Anthem. But their decision to do so is disappointing and disheartening – and their decision reflects the opinions of the American people.

What hope do we have of eradicating racism if we lose our shit when a football player silently and peacefully brings it to our attention?

self-portrait by Ian Frank,
Disabled United States Marine Corps Veteran

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