Taking a knee to stand with the struggle

October 27, 2017

A symbol of protest against racism and violence is center stage in what might have seemed like the least likely of places: the National Football League. Colin Kaepernick's act last year of taking a knee during the national anthem to signal that Black lives must matter spread during the season and into the new one. Then Donald Trump's insults and demands that the players be fired if they didn't stand for the anthem poured fuel on the fire.

We asked a group of Socialist Worker contributors--Rory Fanning, Jesse Hagopian, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Elizabeth Terzakis and Dave Zirin--for their thoughts on the importance of taking a knee, in the NFL and beyond, and what might come of this powerful demonstration against bigotry and injustice.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Author of From #BlackLives Matter to Black Liberation and Princeton University assistant professor

FOOTBALL IS the most popular professional sport in the U.S. So just in terms of the number of people watching and the fact that football is a major cultural phenomenon, it's extremely significant that a protest against police abuse and violence, along with questioning about the workings of the criminal justice system, found expression there.

It started with Colin Kaepernick, but even last season, when he was still playing in the NFL, other players were participating in various aspects of protest around these issues.

That was important in terms of creating a much bigger platform from which to discuss these issues: why they continue and what can be done about them. It kept open a space when other avenues of protest seemed to be getting smaller--particularly in the lead-up to the election last year, which really sucked the momentum out of other kinds of protests.

And now, the protests have taken on an added importance because of the way that Trump intervened so directly--and how they continued after his initial tweets and speeches aimed at shutting them down. That is really a direct rebuke of Trump's authoritarian impulses.

Lansing Catholic High School football players take a knee during the national anthem
Lansing Catholic High School football players take a knee during the national anthem

At least some parts of the media have tried to make it out that Trump is winning this battle, primarily because of the reaction of the NFL owners. Let's remember that many of them supported Trump, not just politically, but also financially, donating money to his campaign and his inauguration party.

But for a lot of people, I think it's very disturbing that the president of the United States could dictate to an employer what their employees should be doing, and whether or not they should have the right to engage in a political protest.

So I don't think there's evidence to back up the idea that Trump is winning this public relations battle. His approval rating continues to crater, and he's still very despised.

Sometimes, that's harder to see, because there's no tangible political alternative to Trump that has presented itself. But certainly part of the broad sentiment against him is a reaction in solidarity with the football players exercising their right to protest.

If the president of the United States and the owners are going to inject politics into the workplace by demanding that players stand for the national anthem, then players have every right to use the opportunity to continue to draw attention to political issues that matter to them--in this case, having to do with the continuation of police abuse and violence in this country.

This demonstration has given confidence to other people--particularly high school students and younger athletes specifically--to see that they also have opportunities of their own right to raise the level of awareness. They are more likely to raise disagreements with the things they see happening in this country--and to express a desire to do something about it.

All of that is important as we continue to search for sustained activism and protest--not just against this presidency and administration, but about the issues bound up with oppression directed at African Americans and other non-white people.

Dave Zirin

Sports editor of TheNation.com and author of eight books on the politics of sports, including most recently Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy

WE LIVE in a time when it feels like Trump takes all the oxygen out of the room. Everything becomes a referendum about this person who two-thirds of the country now completely despises, and one-third is going to ride with to hell.

The problem is that when everything becomes about him, it doesn't really seem to move the needle one way or the other--because people are pretty set at this point in terms of what they think about Trump.

What we need to move the needle on are actual issues where we can win, so that people are more confident to fight back and not just be miserable in their hatred of Trump.

Since Trump's racist speech in Huntsville, Alabama, that aimed to make the NFL issue a referendum about patriotism--and really a referendum about him--the players have been remarkably disciplined in not engaging him, and instead focusing on their messages about criminal justice and racism.

And as a result, to my shock, opinion polls show that more people in the United States can now say what the kneeling protests are about than they could before Trump's speech. That's a credit to the players themselves and a vindication of the very important idea that if they stay focused on actual, tangible issues and movements, and not get caught up in everything being about this narcissistic, orange golem, then we can make progress.

The fact that the players faced off against the 31 NFL owners--not 32, because the Packers don't have one owner--who are some of the most conservative billionaires on the planet, and were actually able to extract concessions from them is pretty remarkable.

They were able to reaffirm their collective bargaining rights and their First Amendment rights. They were able to get money for social justice programs that a lot of players are getting involved in. And they were able to get, of all people, Roger Goodell to co-sign a letter with the Seattle Seahawks' Doug Baldwin to support legislation that lowers mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.

Let's make no mistake: That's hardly radical legislation. But all politics is context. In the context of Jeff Sessions being committed to bringing back the harsh drug sentencing laws of the Clinton '90s back in terms of harsh drug sentencing and supersizing the New Jim Crow laws that have destroyed so many communities across this country, this letter is, in and of itself, significant, and the players should be proud of that.

One of the things that's frustrated me is that voices on the left--particularly voices who are player-sympathetic in the sportswriting community--roll their eyes at all this and say the NFL owners aren't sincere, and are just covering their ass so they can end the protests because of the optics.

To me, that betrays the fact that these people don't have much sense of social justice history. Of course the owners aren't sincere. So what? You extract concessions from them.

I don't care if they're sincere. I don't think Lyndon Johnson was sincere about civil rights, and I don't think Richard Nixon was sincere about creating Title IX or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. I think that they were forced to act because of the mobilizations of mass numbers of people. If people understood that, they would see how significant some of these victories are.

I remember something John Carlos, the Olympic medalist who raised his fist in a Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics, said to me back during the offseason, when Colin Kaepernick got a lot of absurd criticism for saying that if he signed with a team, he would stop kneeling for the national anthem.

John Carlos told me, "When I stood on the medal stand in Mexico City, that was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, and I only had to do it once, for like one minute." Colin Kaepernick took a knee for four straight months--he's done his part.

This idea out there that either the players keep up their take-a-knee protests forever, or they're giving in to white supremacy, reminds me of something Professor Donna Murch conveyed in her session at Socialism 2017 on the Black Panthers and the legacy of Assata Shakur this summer.

She was talking about how a lot of millennial activists, including people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, only view the state as carceral. That's understandable--with the neoliberal state that they've grown up under, they've only seen the state acting as an instrument of oppression. So they can't even conceive of what the Panthers could conceive of in the 1960s--the idea that you can extract concessions from the state to make people's lives better.

I thought that was really insightful and something I think about when I hear the idea that these athletes have to kneel forever to oppose racism.

Jesse Hagopian

Educator at Garfield High School in Seattle and editor of the book More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing

WHEN COLIN Kaepernick launched this movement by first sitting and later taking a knee in the pre-season of the 2016 football season, and then for every single game of the regular season last year, it was really a watershed moment in the history of social protest for racial justice.

I think folks will look back the movement he helped launch the way they look back at some of the great activist-athletes of the 1960s and '70s, like John Carlos and Tommie Smith and Muhammad Ali.

These athletes were integral to the civil rights and Black Power struggles of their time, and I think similarly, there's an important, mutually reinforcing relationship between what athletes are doing today and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The movement against police brutality and for Black lives is what made it possible for Colin to take a knee and know that there would be broader support. And at the same time, his courageous gesture helped elevate the movement. A lot of the demands activists have been making for a long time were able to reach a mainstream audience in a different way.

And it's not just the professional athletes who have a platform. Athletes have an important profile in most schools, whether K-12 or college. So at Garfield High School, where I teach in Seattle, when our high school football team voted unanimously to take a knee, it was also an electrifying moment.

The players came out with a statement detailing why they were taking a knee. They pointed to the fact that the national anthem has a third verse that is rarely sung that celebrates the killing of Black slaves. They pointed out many injustices, from homophobia and sexism to police brutality.

When they took a knee, it really set something off, not just in our school, but across the city. The cheerleaders joined them in taking a knee, the marching band joined in taking a knee, the girls' volleyball team unanimously began taking a knee at their games. In the spring, it continued with the girls' soccer team and the softball team.

You saw students of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities and genders united to say we need a better world--where there's some accountability for police and where Black lives are valued.

If Colin Kaepernick had taken that knee and no one had joined him, it still would have been a powerful symbol. But seeing the outpouring of students across the country join him really signaled what was possible. It spread among students quicker than anywhere else. These students facing the school-to-prison pipeline being the targets of police harassment were some of the first to stand up.

I think it's also important to point out that some of the most vocal opponents of police brutality and some of the first athletes to champion this cause were in women's sports. You had the WNBA athletes wearing shirts in support of Black lives and speaking out at press conferences.

And in the soccer world, Megan Rapinoe was the first white person to take a knee in solidarity. She said she didn't face the same discrimination and racism that Colin Kaepernick has faced, but she know he needs allies, and she has also faced homophobia and knows what it's like to be discriminated against.

Those actions by women athletes really showed what was possible with the take-a-knee movement, which has only grown this year.

Here in Seattle, Michael Bennett of the Seahawks became one of the leading figures carrying on Colin Kaepernick's struggle into this year--now that Kaepernick has been blackballed and the NFL is unjustly shutting him out of the league.

He was joined by Eric Reid, Kaepernick's teammate on the 49ers, and Malcolm Jenkins on the Philadelphia Eagles, among many others who have played an important role in continuing the momentum.

Then, of course, when Donald Trump demanded that the players be fired for exercising their right to protest and called them SOBs--that just poured gasoline on the fire and made it a very widespread action.

I think the struggle is entering a new phase now, because with the widespread activism of players came a conscious effort to dilute the message so that people forget what this movement was really about. The struggle right now is to make sure the spotlight doesn't leave the questions of police accountability, mass incarceration and justice for all.

Elizabeth Terzakis

Cañada College professor, working on a book that touches on women athletes' activism in the 1960s

LAST SPRING, long before Donald Trump attacked NFL players and their mothers to distract the public from his incompetence, I asked a friend and Black female former athlete what she thought about Colin Kaepernick's righteous refusal to stand for the national anthem.

She thought for a moment and then said, "I just wonder what it would take for a Black female athlete to get anything like that kind of attention."

It's a good question, and I will return to it. But first let's take a look at where things stand for women in sports more generally.

It cannot be said that no progress has been made for women in general or Black women in particular since the passage of Title IX 45 years ago. The WNBA is in its 20th season, the U.S. women's national soccer team has passed its 30th, and in 2007, female tennis players finally won equal pay at Wimbledon (thanks, significantly, to Venus Williams).

Alongside these (slowly) growing opportunities for female athletes are openings for women within the sphere of men's sports: the third-ever female coach was recently hired by the NBA, and a growing number of women are taking up leadership positions in at least one NFL franchise, while another has recognized the importance of its female fans.

What's more, after Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton ridiculed Charlotte Observer reporter Jourdan Rodrigue for asking a question that reflected her knowledge of the game, he was moved--by public criticism--to apologize the next day.

Despite these changes, the world of mainstream sports remains overwhelmingly male dominated--according to a research study published in the Sport Journal, "women's sports currently receive 3.2 percent of overall media sports coverage"--and the lack of attention to female athletes is playing out in coverage of the take-a-knee protests, just as it does everywhere else.

So it's no surprise that Black female athletes who have been leading participants in the fight against police brutality from the beginning have been getting little to no attention.

A New York Times "history of Black athlete anthem protests" lists not one female athlete--despite the fact that multiple WNBA teams, including the Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty, Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury, have been protesting police terror and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement since the summer of 2016, right alongside Kaepernick.

Before that, in 2014, Knox College's Ariyana Smith stood under the basket with her hands up while the anthem played and then lay on the ground for four minutes and 30 seconds--to represent the four hours and 30 minutes that Michael Brown's body remained on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, after he was shot by police officer Darren Wilson.

As babe.net author Amanda Ross points out, female athletes participate in protest despite having much thinner financial cushions than their male counterparts. The league average salary for WNBA players is about $72,000--even the lower-paid male players in the NFL and NBA make well over 150 times that.

What will it take for Black female athletes' actions, both in sport and in protest, to get the attention they deserve?

A look at history makes it clear: it will take a movement. The women's liberation movement of the early 1970s amplified the voice of tennis star Billie Jean King and precipitated the passing of Title IX.

Now as then, it needs to be a broad movement--we can't let these athletes take all the risk and the burden alone. Their prominence gives them a podium, but it also puts them at risk.

The only thing that will protect them and allow their courageous protests to resonate more broadly is our active backing. Any feminist who has grown discouraged by reading about Harvey Weinstein's predations should do an Internet search for protests by Black female athletes. I guarantee that you'll feel better--and get an idea of what to do next.

Rory Fanning

Former Army Ranger and war resister who served with Pat Tillman, the NFL player killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, and author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger's Journey Out of the Military and Across America

THESE PROTESTS are calling attention to the fact that there are as many as 1,200 police killings every year, and that we live in the country with the largest prison population on the planet, which disproportionately targets people of color.

All this is a phenomenon unique to the United States, and to have to put your hand over your heart and say "land of the free" in a country that is clearly not free is being dishonest.

I think people like Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett have much more in common with those soldiers who thought they were dying for freedom and democracy and protested when they found out otherwise than those who simply jeer and try to repress dissent from the sidelines.

It's also important to keep in mind that these mandatory acts of patriotism are a relatively new phenomenon. It wasn't until 2009 that players were required to come out of the locker room and salute the flag in this way.

The NFL, in particular, is a sweet spot for military recruiting. So there's a lot on the line in maintaining this hero worship around the soldiers and the flag in order to continue the steady flow of soldiers to occupy 800 military bases around the world and fight our endless wars.

And, of course, the NFL gets 10 percent of the advertising budget of the Pentagon. These teams get millions of dollars to make patriotism mandatory.

This is a conversation that's long overdue. I hope that more people become critical of the institutions that rule over them and think about the root causes for police brutality and mass incarceration and racism.

I'm glad Colin Kaepernick put it all on the line over this. I remember they were called him cowardly in the beginning of his protests, but he's the last thing from a coward. He's risking his career, his safety and his financial security to stand up against this epidemic of police brutality.

Having someone as high profile as him put it on the line emboldens people who otherwise may not have been sure about whether it makes sense to organize and fight back.

We've seen high school and college students be inspired by these professional athletes. They're having conversations that they might not otherwise have had as a result. Which is important, because the military recruiters have a strong reach into schools, and there often isn't a good, healthy counter-narrative.

And Kaepernick is also putting his money where his mouth is by hosting "Know Your Rights Camps" and saying this is more than just a symbolic protest--it's also about organizing.

This is only a component of pushing back against an unjust, exploitative and oppressive system, but it's a valuable and important one.

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