As the national anthem played across his team’s pre-season fixtures, Kaepernick has chosen to sit through it to protest what is slowly becoming an American nightmare.The land of the free and the home of the brave… Not quite, as Colin Kaepernick may say. The 28-year-old, who plays for San Francisco 49ers in the National Football League (NFL), decided to take a stand by sitting. As the national anthem has played across his team’s pre-season fixtures, Kaepernick has chosen to sit through it. Not stand and bellow the song, as many ‘patriots’ would have him do. No, he sits. Why?
“These aren’t new situations. This isn’t new ground. There are things that have gone on in this country for years and years and have never been addressed, and they need to be. There’s a lot of things that need to change. One specifically? Police brutality. There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. People are being given paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.”
The last two lines have been uttered in the reaction to his ‘stand’ as well. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards. Of course, in this case, ‘anyone’s standards’ are the standards of the ‘truly patriotic’. Kaepernick is just a ‘military-bashing traitor’.
Donald Trump, forever on the ‘right side’ of outrage, set the agenda on the Dori Monson Show, a conservative radio programme. “I think it’s a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try – it won’t happen.”
For someone who has run a presidential campaign on the argument that the US is not the best country to live anymore, that seems a strange thing to say. But hypocrisy is the flavour of the season, and Trump knows it best. He wants people to feel ashamed of the US for not being the best anymore but he cannot think of a country that would be a better home. Go figure!
Freedom, of course, looks best when placed as an abstract trophy in our minds. You are allowed to perceive you have it, but you dare not lift it. The army men and women did not die for you to sit through the national anthem, Kaepernick has been told. Of course, they did not. They fought for a variety of personal reasons and also to protect the US. The land of the free and the home of the brave. They fought to protect this land that allows Kaepernick the right to protest against police brutality. If they fought to give him that freedom, is he not meant to exercise it? Is it supposed to be stored away, to be recalled to mind every year on the 4th of July?
Sporting heroes do not always speak their mind, for the consequences can be far too much. At the now much-discussed press conference, Kaepernick acknowledged that it is difficult for his teammates and other football players to do what he did. Even if they agree with him, the costs are too high. Kaepernick’s career has been in decline; his stand only makes him an easier target to be cut from his team’s roster, the financial implications aside. He admits that he has a lavish life; Kaepernick has something to lose.
This is what makes his story even more fascinating. He did not allow his personal status to blind, what he saw was his ‘social responsibility’. Kaepernick was quick to stress that we should not look too much into the timing of his protest. But it is tough not to place his actions in the wider context of the Black Lives Matter movement and the presidential election in the US.
Kaepernick himself spoke about the choice that lies in front of all Americans this November. “You have Hillary (Clinton), who has called black teens or black kids super predators. You have Donald Trump, who is openly racist. We have a presidential candidate (Clinton) who has deleted emails and done things illegally and is a presidential candidate. That doesn’t make sense to me. If that was any other person, you’d be in prison. So what is this country really standing for?”
Kaepernick knows what he is standing for. Despite the presence of a black President in the White House, police brutality against blacks has showed no signs of abating. A ProPublica report two years ago found that young black males, between the ages of 15 and 19, were 21-times more likely to be attacked by the police than the whites. The number of prominent incidents since has given us no reason to doubt this figure.
In the days following the passing away of Muhammad Ali, a question had been discussed on various forums. How would today’s establishment deal with a radical figure like Ali? The jingoistic reaction by the overwhelmingly white and right-wing media to Kaepernick seems to suggest not much has changed.
When Kaepernick steps out to play against the San Diego Chargers on Thursday night, he will be the cynosure of all eyes. For a pre-season match, the fixture will be under arguably unprecedented attention. As if the atmosphere is not charged already, there will be a ‘Salute to the Military’ during the game. The national anthem and ‘God Bless America’ will be sung at different points; Kaepernick’s reaction will obviously be scrutinised. He has vowed to go on, even if it means threatening his personal safety. As he said, if he suffers physical harm on account of his protest, his point would have been proved.
“To me, this is a freedom that we’re allowed in this country. And going back to the military, it’s a freedom that men and women that have fought for this country have given me this opportunity by contributions they have made. So I don’t see it as going about it the wrong way.”
The ones who have readily questioned his right to sit through the national anthem are certainly going the wrong way. Kaepernick is of mixed heritage. He represents the America that wants an end to racial discrimination but finds itself at a loss when that dream looks distant. When faced with the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a despairing call is understandable. If you don’t stand up now, then when?
Kaepernick’s patriotism is not in question. For he does what a patriot needs to do, speak out when his country’s ideals are compromised. He could have chosen to remain silent but he spoke out. As he said, he has a voice that can reach out to many others.
It is a voice that speaks to people across boundaries. Could there be a Kaepernick in Indian sport? What if a cricketer spoke out against the army’s brutalities in Kashmir or the anti-beef eating vigilantes? Would we receive it well or would we borrow white America’s outrage toward Kaepernick?
The current political climate suggests that the latter is likely. The pessimistic outlook is fuelled by the vitriolic outrage suffered by Suresh Raina when he came out in support of Kanhaiya Kumar earlier this year. The word traitor was in use then too and of course, he was accused of disrespecting our military. It is a curious, jingoistic disposition to equate our national symbols with the armed forces every time someone does not conform to the majoritarian outlook on the nation. Are we together because of the military or is there something else that binds us?
The pluralism that flourishes in our national anthem might provide the answer to that question. If the national anthem is going to serve as a daily reminder of the nation, then Indians will need to view themselves as a part of a secular state.
The Indian version of secularism also allows us the freedom to sit through the playing of a national anthem, if we feel the foundations of our country are weakening. A couple (who may happen to be Muslim) can enjoy a film in a cinema hall even if they do not stand for the national anthem before the show. An Indian citizen can have a foreign friend who chooses to sit through the playing of national anthem without the threat of violence. And a film star can respect the right of a citizen to not stand during the national anthem, if he desires to do so.
Kaepernick would identify with each of those victims. For they are the victims of a jingoist interpretation of our national values. Like Kaepernick, they were just exercising their freedom. Kaepernick, though, is also a victim of an anthem that needs a change. As Jon Schwarz noted, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ “celebrates the murder of African-Americans.”
America’s history with racism reinforces the need to keep the conversation going. John Carlos and his American teammate Tommie Smith were immortalised when they raised their black-gloved fists on the podium during the national anthem at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Consequently, they were expelled from the Olympic Village and became the subject of death threats.
It is only in hindsight, like Ali, that their political gesture is appreciated. Perhaps Kaepernick will experience a similar reaction. When the message has lost its sharpness, American society will come to appreciate what he stands for. But for Kaepernick, it’s important to fight now and keep the momentum going. “The beat goes on, man,” said John Carlos in the aftermath of the Kaepernick protest. The anti-racism fight still needs to be fought and we have a new face.
In the current scenario, though, it is important to remember Peter Norman, too. He was the Australian sprinter who came second in the 200m race that brought medals for Smith and Carlos. He has not been immortalised because he did not raise his fist or stand barefoot on the podium. But he supported Smith and Carlos’ cause wholeheartedly. He wore the badge of the ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’ – Carlos and Smith became the face of that movement. He could associate himself to their cause because racist laws flourished in 1960s Australia. He gave his own voice to the movement, even though it took years for it to be heard.
Perhaps there are similar voices lurking in Indian sport too. Raina’s dalliance with politics would not have inspired many to come forward and voice theirs. The costs are high and there are too many detractors. But we need our public figures to speak out when they feel the need to do so. And it’s our duty to hear them out when they do. The US has a patriot in Kaepernick. Who would be ours?
Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.