Founding Father and slave owner Thomas Jefferson’s mantra that, “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty,” is today exemplified in the stance taken by NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, with his refusal to stand for the US national anthem prior to the San Francisco 49ers’ recent preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. As Kaepernick told the press afterwards, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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.”
Kaepernick’s stand is with the growing number of victims of police brutality in America, specifically people of colour who’ve been gunned down by law enforcement officers in controversial circumstances, and the lack of prosecutions when it comes to the officer’s involved. It is a controversy and a national scandal that confirms that when it comes to law enforcement and justice, there remain two Americas, the land of opportunity that is the domain of most white people, otherwise known as the American dream, and the American nightmare that is the lived experience of predominately black people. Malcolm X put it thus, “No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
Predictably, the 28-year old quarterback has been hit with a tsunami of criticism over his refusal to stand for the national anthem, demonised as unpatriotic and a disgrace to the NFL and to his country. His critics have taken particular umbridge with the fact that Kaepernick recently signed a six-year $114 million contract with the 49ers, thereby inferring that being rich and not having a social conscience are two sides of the same coin. Indeed Kaepernick, who is of mixed race parentage, is deserving of even more respect given his wealth, as the people he’s taking a stand with — victims of police brutality — are overwhelmingly poor or from low income communities.
If there is one thing America hates it is having its mask of democracy and liberty removed to reveal the true face of a nation founded upon the genocide of the indigenous population before being built on the back of slave labour – a country which continues to exist at the negation of people of colour and poor people to this day. Regardless of the long and courageous struggle of the Civil Rights Movement, regardless of the raft of laws passed against racial discrimination, and regardless of a constitution that enshrines the principle that, “all men are created equal,” in 2016 America has yet to come to terms with the racism and inequality that lie at the heart of its culture and cultural values.
You only have to consider the rise and popularity of Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, to understand the extent of the recrudescence of bigotry and prejudice in the US — almost to the point where you could be forgiven for thinking that it was the pro-slavery Confederacy that won the country’s 1861–65 civil war.
Colin Kaepernick is not the only high profile voice that’s been raised against the ongoing injustice being suffered by black people and people of colour in America recently. Beyonce has also attracted criticism for taking the same stand during her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York with her depiction of a police shooting. In taking the public position they have, Kaepernick and Beyonce are standing on the shoulders of other black American athletes and performers who’ve refused to look the other way in a society in which they have succeeded in achieving financial and professional success. In so doing they have earned something far more valuable than any contract, endorsement, or paycheque; they have earned a place in history.
Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos — their names live on as a reminder that only live fish can swim against the tide, and that it is upon those with the courage to say no to injustice, to refuse to go along to get along, that justice and freedom depends.
To those who insist that all Americans should respect the national anthem and the flag it reveres, here again we see the disjunction between the myth of America and its ugly truth. The Star Spangled Banner was written by a man, Francis Scott Key, who’d tasted defeat in the American War of Independence at the hands of former slaves fighting on the side of the British against the future of slavery and oppression that awaited them and their families in the event that the American Revolution prevailed. Key’s disdain for black soldiers, Colonial Marines, who dared take up arms to fight for their freedom from slavery and racial oppression, is laid out in a verse of the Star Spangled Banner that nowadays is never sung — at least certainly not in public.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Colin Kaepernick courage reminds us of the timeless wisdom embodied in the words of South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” More than neutral, the quarterback’s critics are the kind of people Oscar Wilde had in mind when he described patriotism as the “virtue of the vicious.”