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The Quarterback and the Propaganda

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In August, an NFL quarterback named Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—the official U.S. national anthem—before several preseason games. When asked about it, after the third game, Kaepernick explained that his quiet protest was a response to police brutality.

I’m not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and the 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.

Considering how statistical analysis of police shootings reveals that unarmed blacks are disproportionately targeted, how frequently cameras now catch police officers shooting unarmed blacks, and how rarely these homicides result in criminal conviction, Kaepernick’s words and actions seem rather mild, even inconsequential. But the soulless, atomized world of corporate infotainment and social media thrives on controversy, and the word-squall that ensued made Kaepernick’s act significant. It also revealed much about the militarized mindset of many U.S. citizens.

When the alarm sounded—Someone didn’t stand!—the first responders jerked into action. Kaepernick, they shouted from their cable network perches, was being selfish, resentful, idiotic. Of course, Kaepernick wasn’t just anybody. He was somebody, a brown-skinned sports millionaire—tattoos and afro—in a large media market, a potentially influential figure who must be delegitimized immediately. Kaepernick was unpatriotic and should find a new country, the television blowhards decreed. Theirs is a deeply militarized mindset, also known as fascism—the desire to destroy what you cannot control.

Once the professionals had set the tone, the petty fascists felt safe to emerge. Poker gambler and villain actor James Woods took to Twitter to call Kaepernick a “dirtbag” with his “worthless ass in the mud” who should be fired. Musician and porn actor Kid Rock shouted, “Fuck Colin Kaepernick!” during a concert performance. Their vulgar sentiments were shared by numerous non-celebrity online philosophers. One slur gained the most traction: Kaepernick is disrespecting the military. In an Instagram post, bikini model and veterans affairs expert Kate Upton articulated this attack as well as anyone:

In my opinion, the national anthem…represents honoring the brave men and women who sacrifice and have sacrificed their lives each and every single day to protect our freedom. Sitting or kneeling down during the national anthem is a disgrace to those people who have served or currently serve our country.

In this same camp were those who acknowledged that “our freedom” included the right not to stand during a nationalist hymn in theory, then quickly dismissed the practice. NFL veteran Tyler Polumbus tweeted, “Activists changed USA for better but have to associate Nat Anthem w/military that die for ur right to protest. Stand up. Find another way.” Yes, have to. Alex Boone, a former teammate of Kaepernick’s, told a reporter, “That flag obviously gives him the right to do whatever he wants…. At the same time, you should have some fucking respect for people who served, especially people that lost their life to protect our freedom.” Boone’s authority arose from having “a brother that served, and he lost friends.” If Kaepernick had still been his teammate, Boone suggested, “I think we would’ve had a problem on the sideline.” Again, the fascist voice: I determine the extent of your freedom.

An alternative line of criticism was more concerned with the football mantra of team (meaning victory on the field, not mutual well-being) before self. Oblivious to the racist implications, cable sports analyst Trent Dilfer chided Kaepernick for not staying in his place:

No matter how much of a burden you have for a social issue, you don’t let it get in the way of the team…. This is a backup quarterback, whose job is to be quiet and sit in the shadows.

Other professional sports know-it-alls disclosed that Kaepernick, formerly a first-string player, was, in fact, responding to being out of the limelight. “Now all of a sudden he’s struggling for attention and he makes this big pitch,” baseball executive Tony La Russa explained. Dilfer’s colleague and fellow former quarterback Matt Hasselbeck tweeted, “Easy way to make sure you’re NOT the starting QB on opening day” and “49ers open on #MNF (Sept 12) = even more attention.”

As more current and former NFL players tweeted in, the debate centered on which was more important, the legitimacy of Kaepernick’s protest or the illegitimacy of his method. Arian Foster noted, “You can’t be selective and dictate what freedoms this country stands for.” Damien Woody agreed, “This is what comes from a free society, unless [people] hate democracy.” Rishard Matthews didn’t like the method—“Come on bro this is the land of the Free BECAUSE of the Brave that’s what our Flag represents”—but tempered his tweet with smiley faces. Indeed, when it came to tone of voice, tone of skin appeared to play a role. The harshest reprimands came from the pink-faced likes of Boone, Dilfer, and Brian Finnerman, who lectured, “Do something productive not disrespectful! Or move out!” Baseball player Aubrey Huff puffed, “This guy is a joke…. You don’t like it in a country that has given you the opportunity to succeed? Then get out.”

Emmanuel Acho noticed the color line, tweeting, “Not condoning it, but you’ll be hard pressed to find an African American that chastises @Kaepernick7 for his actions.” Fellow non-chastisers included A.J. Francis (“Until you understand what that’s like, you won’t understand where he or anyone that supports him is coming from.”) and Adrian Clayborn (“The easy thing to do is make fun of Kap and his play. How about trying to understand where he’s coming from…but that would be too hard.”). The pink chorus of privilege commanded, “Shut up and be grateful.” The empathic brown rejoinder said, “The anthem should be respected, but the man has a point.” Marshawn Lynch may have parsed it best: “If you’re really not a racist, then you won’t see what he’s doing as a threat to America but just addressing a problem that we have.”

Skin color didn’t seem to matter when it came equating the national anthem with the military, and the military with “our freedom.” For most commenters, those two equations were received truth, not to be questioned. And, indeed, the first equation is historically accurate. Written in 1814, the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” celebrate the U.S. flag as a symbol of military resistance, however meager, to a foreign invader during the so-called War of 1812.

The second equation is more problematic. The third verse of the anthem celebrates the killing of black men who had escaped slavery and joined the invading British forces. In 1814, the British Army was actively liberating slaves on U.S. soil. After the war, the U.S. government, headed by a slaveowner, demanded this “property” be returned. British officials refused and helped some 6,000 freed people relocate to British colonies. In precise historical context, the freedom of the anthem—“land of the free and the home of the brave”—is the freedom of whites to deny freedom to blacks.

But meanings change, history gets ignored, and the shameful third verse is little known and rarely sung. At NFL games, only the first verse is performed, typically with a military color guard standing by and fighter jets roaring overhead. (The Department of Defense pays the NFL to “salute” U.S. troops.) In NFL logic, the anthem represents present-day (post-9-11-01) military personnel, and they are above reproach. In response to his critics, Kaepernick felt it important to confirm has appreciation for such soldiers: “I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone.” On this point, Kaepernick is wrong. The U.S. military, today as in 1814, is not in the freedom business.

When have U.S. military personnel protected U.S. residents from tyranny? During the Civil War and its aftermath, federal troops occupied the South and enforced emancipation after slave flight and Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation changed the meaning of the fight. Almost a century later, federal troops—at Little Rock, Oxford, and elsewhere in the South—made occasional contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. That’s about it. In the twentieth century, U.S. military personnel were more likely to be deployed against protesters exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly, including Bonus Marchers in D.C. and nonviolent activists on college campuses and in city streets. Since 2001, with U.S. warring back in full swing, the Department of Defense has revamped its domestic espionage against peace organizations.

Furthermore, it should go without saying that U.S. military adventures overseas have nothing to do with “our freedom.” U.S. forces have not invaded or bombed Native American nations, Mexico, Philippines, Germany, Japan, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, and numerous other foreign lands to defend the liberty of U.S. citizens, unless one means the liberty to exploit cheaply the natural resources of the planet. But the obvious must be stated because Kaepernick’s misunderstanding—“they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone”—seems typical among U.S. citizens. The widespread, uncritical acceptance and recitation of this trope—militarism equals domestic freedom—is among the greatest triumphs of U.S. propaganda.

To find the truly heroic defenders of “our freedom” in U.S. history, one must block out the rocket’s red glare and look to the brave men and women without uniform who have challenged conventional authority and risked their lives to expand the very meaning of freedom. When Kaepernick remained seated to protest police oppression, he was joining a grand tradition of those who have sat to challenge violent tyranny—labor union members holding sit-down strikes for workers’ rights; women suffragists on hunger strike in D.C. jails after being beaten by off-duty military personnel; students conducting sit-ins, freedom rides, and jailhouse solidarity to end Jim Crow apartheid. (We should also note those who sit daily in offices and courtrooms, using the legal system to defend civil liberties.)

In the USA, ignorance of this history of nonviolent action allows for militarization of the mind. To the militarized mind, freedom comes from the barrel of a gun (so long as the one with the gun wears the right uniform). The militarized mind believes, falsely, that the threat power of violence is greater than the integrative power of nonviolence, believes with George W. Bush that “when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.” The militarized mind sees Kaepernick disobediently seated and gets it perfectly backward. Kaepernick, in his small way, was defending the right of dark-skinned citizens to due process of the law, defending their freedom from police execution. The militarized mind interprets actual defense of freedom as an insult to freedom. The propaganda overachieves.

The television fascists, with their thoroughly militarized minds, see little distinction between military personnel and police officers—armed and in uniform, serving the state with violence. They give soldier and cop the benefit of the doubt, assume them to be sacrificing for the greater good, euphemize their crimes, gratuitously label them “heroes.” Kaepernick does make a distinction. He may not imagine being targeted by U.S. Air Force drones or Marine snipers, but he knows his brown skin makes him vulnerable to police harassment, his wealth and celebrity notwithstanding. For him, the military equals freedom, the cops do not:

People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding up their end of the bargain, as far as giving freedom and justice and liberty to everybody. There is police brutality. People of color have been targeted by police.

At first, Kaepernick’s message was lost, drowned out by the slurs, buried by the propagandists’ sleight of hand. Then, the ad hominen attacks backfired. Several NFL players joined the anthem protest, perhaps motivated as much by solidarity as by frustration with police brutality. Jeremy Lane said, “I wasn’t trying to say anything. Just standing behind Kaepernick.” At root, those two concerns are the same: the knee-jerk condemnation of black males, presumed guilty, no benefit of the doubt, no stepping out of line. And soon, more stepped out of line, taking a knee or raising a fist during the pre-game hymn, not just in the NFL, but also at high schools. These actions are symbolic, but also empowering, especially when framed with eloquent and compassionate words. They challenge fascism, express discontent with injustice, and inspire others to do the same. Niamey Harris, a quarterback at Mission High (San Francisco, CA), explained, “This is for helping everybody else in the world to understand that black people and people of color are going through difficulties and they need help. It’s not going to take care of itself.”

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