As always, you can hear the message you want to hear. Even if it’s at the expense of the one you should be absorbing, at full volume, now more than ever.
You can ignore, or push aside, the outrage over George Floyd’s death, the heartbreaking anguish of his “I can’t breathe” plea as white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee asphyxiated him. You can focus instead on the aftermath of the protests on behalf of Floyd (and so many others before him), obsess over the mayhem and looting that threatens to obscure the visceral fury and the valid frustration, if you let it.
It’s an old story, of course. Four years ago, Colin Kaepernick felt that same outrage — this time over another death at the hands of a police officer — and tried to channel it in a way that brought visibility to the issue. He took a seat during the national anthem of a San Francisco 49ers preseason game (which he soon amended to taking a knee after consulting with former Green Beret, and brief Seahawks long-snapper, Nate Boyer).
Thus was a cultural movement born, with Kaepernick explaining that he was protesting racial injustice, oppression and police brutality. And he did so peacefully, eventually joined by dozens of fellow NFL players.
“I’m not anti-American. I love America. I love people,” Kaepernick said at the outset of his protest. “That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”
Yet the message that resonated most loudly was not one of empathy, or for a call to action and a demand for change. There was certainly much of that, but in the end, Kaepernick’s message was drowned out by the visual discordance of his protest. People couldn’t get past the notion that he was “disrespecting the flag” or “protesting the anthem,” and it gave them convenient cover to ignore the substance of his grievances.
Eventually, Kaepernick was (and still is) shut out of the NFL, and the remaining players who chose to protest during the anthem were forced out of sight to the locker room by a new rule. The league cowered from the wrath of Donald Trump, who railed:
“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!’ ” the president said at a rally in Alabama in September 2017.
“You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it, (but) they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
Flash forward to the events of the past week, and to not just Floyd but also Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and so many other infuriating cases involving Black people, and you have to ask: Shouldn’t we have paid more attention to the substance of Kaepernick’s words rather than the trappings? Because what we saw so starkly in the Floyd video is what Kaepernick was trying to tell us all along.
“I hope people have a new perspective on what Colin was trying to do,” Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said Monday in a Zoom video call with the media. “Because again, you see with this situation, when you look on the TV right now and you see what’s on the news, just showing people who are stealing, showing people who are damaging different areas, things of that nature, but they don’t really talk about what caused these people to feel this way.
“And so when you look at Colin, I think when he spoke about it, maybe it wasn’t perfect, but he put out the message on why he was doing this and what he was doing this for, and what he wanted to see. And yet somehow it turned into being solely about the flag. From jump, it was never about that. He’s even gone and said, ‘Hey, look, I went to the military and I asked them, what can I do to display my unhappiness with what’s going on in this world right now?’
“He took the time to educate himself. He took the time to talk to the people it could offend to make sure they weren’t offended. And still that was the only thing we talk about. Even when we talk back about what was going on at that time, the first thing that comes out of people’s mouth is the flag.
“It was never about that. It was about situations like this and situations that happened way before this, where the Black community is not being treated fairly. And the people that are harming the Black community are not being held accountable. I support him then, I support him now.”
I’m not naive enough to think there will now be a tidal wave of newfound support for Kaepernick, or that his detractors will admit he’s been vindicated. I’ve read enough comment threads to know that’s not the case. But I hope enough people reconsider their stance and give an honest reckoning, in their heart of hearts, to the substance of Kaepernick’s message rather than its mode of delivery.
My fervent hope through all of this, in fact, is that we can sift through the jarring images of cars on fire, windows being smashed and shops being looted — much of it not instigated by the heartsick protesters who were moved to peaceful action by the Floyd death. And not be distracted by the disturbing confrontations between police and rioters to the extent we forget, or ignore, what sent this nation to the bursting point.
Even with the cacophony of these past few days trying to drown it out, let’s hear the message of injustice, and work to fix it.