#TakeAKnee has been dominating the news this past week, and has become the latest frontline of our nation’s culture war. There are many stories intertwined here; but the most important thing for us to remember is this issue is bigger than the NFL and it impacts us all. However, before I discuss the implications, I want to remind everyone how we got here.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began his protest against social injustice during the NFL preseason in 2016 when former President Barack Obama was still in the White House. Kaepernick said he began the silent protest to bring attention to the oppression of people of color and the police shootings of unarmed black men. He described it as an effort to use his voice and his position as a NFL player to speak for those who weren’t being heard and to effect change.
Kaepernick sat silently as the national anthem played to open three preseason games before anyone noticed his actions. During his first news conference to explain the protest, Kaepernick stressed that his sitting was neither anti-American nor anti-military, and he was not disrespecting the troops. He repeated to the media that he was doing it to bring to light serious social issues and to evoke change. Kaepernick’s media comments prompted former Green Beret and NFL long-snapper Nate Boyer to request a meeting. After their discussion, Kaepernick shifted from sitting during the national anthem to taking a knee during a Monday night football game. He also pledged to donate $1-million to charities that focused on racial issues.
There was limited support in the beginning from his fellow NFL players—only one of his teammates, Eric Reid, initially joined him. Kaepernick received a lot of public pressure to end his protest; he was booed and called names. But he did not acquiesce, even though eventually it would cost him his NFL career. As the preseason progressed individual members of NFL teams began kneeling. A member of the National Women’s Soccer League was the first non-football player to kneel during the national anthem. Before the NFL preseason ended, as described in a cover story about Kaepernick in Time Magazine, “The movement spread from NFL Sundays to college-football Saturdays to the Friday-night lights of high school games and even trickled down into the peewee ranks, where a youth team in Texas decided they, too, needed to take a stand by kneeling.” Members of WNBA teams; college athletes, cheerleaders, along with marching bands, also were kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner.
Flash forward to the August 2017 and the beginning of NFL preseason. More than a dozen members of the Cleveland Browns staged the largest national anthem protest yet and, for the first time, two white NFL players joined the protest. The group included veterans, rookies, starters and backups. One of the players explained to ESPN: “There’s a lot of racial and social injustices in the world that are going on right now. We just decided to take a knee and pray for the people who have been affected and just pray for the world in general.
While the people of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were suffering through the aftermath of TWO hurricanes — Irma and Maria—it will likely never be understood why Trump instead decided to focus his attention on the courageous athletes choosing to follow the tradition of the civil rights marchers kneeling in prayer in the face of injustice. The New Yorker Magazine described the events this way: While campaigning for his losing U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama on September 22, 2017, Trump declared that “athletes who persisted in kneeling during the anthem should not be allowed to play. Imagining himself as a team owner, he said: ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired!’ Trump called the protesting athletes ‘those people.’ He won the crowd; he lost the country.”
Truth be told, watching Trump’s remarks felt like a rewind of Bull Connor’s and George Wallace’s vitriolic taunts that maliciously mischaracterized the actions of the civil rights marchers during the 1950s and 1960s. Trump shifted the public focus and discourse away from the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech and peaceful protest, to accuse those kneeling of being unpatriotic. (I always thought kneeling was one of the highest forms of respect—that’s how people worldwide pray and express reverence!) To add insult to injury, Trump talked about the NFL players as if they worked on a plantation, implying that “those SOB’s” must do as they are told. Given that the NFL players are overwhelmingly African American and the audience in the stadiums is overwhelmingly white, it is disingenuous of Trump to pretend that this issue has nothing to do with race. Throughout the week, he continued blowing an infectious, racial “dog whistle,” even claiming that the owners were afraid of the (big, bad, Black) players.
While the actions initiated by Kaepernick may have been the inspiration, Trump’s defaming bluster was the actual catalyst for the united wave of protests that erupted on September 24, 2017, before NFL football games—from London to LA. The reaction to Trump’s disrespectful language and derisive attack spread to concert stages (Stevie Wonder knelt in New York and Pharrell Williams took a knee in Charlottesville); editorial pages (John Legend wrote a thought-provoking piece), and blew up social media with #TakeAKnee. This massive action was initiated by the majority of players, coaches, owners, water boys, and even included a couple of people who sang the national anthem. But we will miss the point if we think of these events only as protests. The kneeling and linking of arms that the entire world witnessed was a loud and daring act of resistance. This was a bold, defiant and united “Hell no!” response to Trump’s authoritarianism, tyranny, bullying, divisiveness and distortion of the truth.
I am grateful for the most recent example of mobilizing resistance (in record time!) that the NFL football players (and many owners) have provided! Now, each of us has the opportunity (and I think, responsibility), in whatever sphere we work or have influence, to redouble our efforts to resist divisiveness, dismissiveness, marginalization and exclusion, and to protect, as well as maintain our right to do so. It’s even more challenging for us, as culture warriors, to muster our limited resources to help set the record straight before our nation sinks further into the distorted and divisive abyss of fear, anger and mistrust being promoted by Trump.
As arts-makers, administrators, executives, curators, marketers, etc., we are the caretakers of America’s cultural landscape. For at least the next four years, we must fight even harder to resist the agenda of divide and conquer. As I’ve shared in previous blogs, culture and art are the greatest tools of resistance; they inspire creative action and collectively allow us to develop inclusive solutions to our nation’s greatest challenges. Culture and art allow us to reclaim our humanity; celebrate each other, build awareness, expand our capacity, foster youth, and invest in the future of all of our communities.
We are not, nor will we ever be powerless. Wherever you find yourself, whatever you do, take a stand that makes it clear that social injustice, racism, sexism, bullying, marginalization and police brutality will not be tolerated. Now is the time to resist. Evil can only succeed when good people remain quiet.