I first went to protests during a Democratic Administration – the LBJ Administration, to be specific. I was a young boy, my parents were only slightly to the right of Trotsky, and they felt compelled to take me to Resurrection City at the National Mall in Washington, DC. That protest was part of the so-called “Poor People’s Campaign,” which turned out to be the last movement Martin Luther King, Jr. ever organized. Attending that event helped me appreciate the need to fight poverty and racism in America, two causes that I’ve deeply believed in ever since. I’ve also participated in protests for various other progressive causes. They include gun control, a woman’s right to choose to abort a pregnancy, a gay couple’s right to get married, and Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State. (OK, so that last one isn’t viewed as “progressive,” but damned if I don’t believe in it nevertheless.) In addition, I’ve protested AGAINST things, especially wars. I remember walking down the street as fellow travelers chanted such slogans as “Racist Reagan Get the Word, Grenada’s Not Johannesburg.” And after George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and John Kerry got us involved in a bi-partisan quagmire in Iraq, I became obsessed with finding opportunities to protest. I detested that war from the start, and it was a big reason why I was such a passionate supporter of Barack Obama in 2008. I might have supported Mickey Mouse if I had known he was against that war from the start.
Here’s what I keep wondering – if Mickey Mouse instead of Barack Obama had been elected in 2008 and if he had a House majority and 60 Democratic Senators, might he actually have fought for more progressive tax rates? Or otherwise confront the growing inequalities of wealth in America? Or have been more focused on racial inequalities generally? After President Obama took office, it took almost three years for any significant protest movement to begin on those issues because progressive protests tend not to flourish as much when there’s a Democrat in the White House. (That often functions like a narcotic to calm down the left.) Eventually, though, the Occupy movement arose, followed by Black Lives Matter. Once again, Americans have taken to the street to object to the inequities we all see on the evening news. I’m glad that there are people around who are still willing to call out inequities and not merely take the status quo for granted.
Even when I see protesters who are arguing AGAINST the causes I believe in, I sometimes feel pleasure at the sight of their picket signs. Take the right-to-lifers, who often line the streets of DC to object to abortion rights. I thoroughly disagree with their conclusion. But I appreciate that they are protesting in favor of the sanctity of human life (a majestic principle) and that they care about something larger than their own selfish interests.
It has become a cliché to say that we support someone’s “right to protest.” But when it comes to the right-to-lifers, I am far more supportive than that. I appreciate their “pro-life” stance, just not the anti-choice consequence of that stance. Mostly, I’m just happy to live in a country where it doesn’t matter if you’re on the political left or the political right -- you are supported in your desire to grab a picket sign, collect with like-minded citizens, and demonstrate that you are far from a self-absorbed, materialist bore. If the Nazis want to march on Skokie, then fine – march on Skokie. I’ll be right there too, counter-protesting, and loving my country for giving us both the opportunity to speak our piece.
It’s with that introduction that I turn to the case of Colin Kaepernick – the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who ignited a national controversy because of his refusal, based on concerns of racial inequalities in America, to stand for the national anthem during pro football games. Kaepernick’s protest has become quite the litmus test. The folks on the right look at him as anti-American, anti-military, and anti-police. The folks on the left look at him as a profile in courage and a compassionate voice in the ethical wilderness known as the American professional sports industry. Truly, the reactions to Kaepernick reflect the total polarization in American society.
But I resist that polarization. And I similarly resist the temptation either to villainize this QB or to go out of my way to praise him. I feel about Colin K not a whole lot differently than I feel about the right-to-lifers who often line the streets of DC. I appreciate where he’s coming from, but I disagree with his conclusions and champion an altogether different cause than he does.
Let me begin by acknowledging what I most appreciate about Kaepernick’s conduct. He has the balls to put his own political views on display even though he has to know it will antagonize a large segment of the football audience and maybe even breed disharmony in his locker room. He could have been like most NFL stars -- avoid rocking the political boat at all costs, earn tens of millions of dollars in salaries and endorsements, and enjoy the existence of a nouveau-riche narcissist. The fact that he didn’t speaks volumes for his character.
What’s more, Colin K demonstrated an appreciation for a principle near and dear to my heart – racial equality. It clearly pains him to see black people live second-class lives, a status that so many have had to endure for so long in this country, and he appropriately feels compelled to do something about that. So why not take advantage of the forum available to him: speaking out at a football game, the one and only place where he is truly a public figure?
So far, so noble.
But unfortunately, the facts preclude me from stopping there. Just consider the statements that Colin K has made in favor of his protest. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media shortly after he first sat down during a national anthem. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
My reaction to those words were as viscerally negative as the reaction of most conservatives. So he hates racial inequities. I do too. But why should he take that anger out on his love for this nation or its flag? Personally, I AM going to stand up and show pride in the flag of a country that, for so many generations, has supported such principles as democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and equality under the law. While I recognize that this country is far from perfect, that doesn’t mean it isn’t perfectible if our leaders protest with the subtlety and insight of a Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than with crude and ugly statements. An example of such a statement is Colin Kaepernick’s decision to publicly wear socks that depict police officers as pigs.
Here’s his justification for such a sartorial choice: "I wore these socks, in the past, because the rogue cops that are allowed to hold positions in police departments, not only put the community in danger, but also put the cops that have the right intentions in danger by creating an environment of tension and mistrust.”
I’m sorry, Colin, but for every “rogue cop,” there are surely a huge number of public servants in blue who put their own lives on the line every day to protect us all, and who do so at a salary that is one zillionth of what you make for throwing a ball on a green field. Some police officers have screwed up on the job for reasons other than hatred or corruption – they just make mistakes. The last time I checked, though, you’ve made a ton of mistakes as a QB; in fact, as NFL quarterbacks go, you’re just not very good. But does that make you corrupt or evil? No, it just makes you human.
Just as I stand with the right-to-life protesters because they believe deeply in the sanctity of human life, I sit with Colin Kaepernick because I pine for a time when black skin is no longer the object of condescension and fear. But I continue to be pro-choice on abortion. And I continue to support the American flag and the institution of the local American police force.
All that said, I also support ALL Americans who search their souls and find causes about which they are passionate. And I especially support those Americans who are willing to make tremendous personal sacrifices in support of their causes. Colin Kaepernick has risked a lot to fight for his cause – and his statements, however crude, have at least been non-violent. In that regard, I salute him.