The U.S. isn't equipped to handle imperfect protests like Kaepernick and the NFL

The U.S. isn't equipped to handle imperfect protests like Kaepernick and the NFL

PoliticsNovember 10, 2017 By Mark McInnes

The U.S. has made protesting so dirty it’s impossible to find a universally accepted form of it.

Camping out in public parks destroys the environment. Marching in the streets disrupts people’s lives. Petitions never go anywhere. Celebrities and actors are told to stay in their lane. Taking a knee during a football game spits on the memories of soldiers.

Despite it being a fundamental right in a democracy to show discontent, to be a protester is the dirty image of futile idealism, or a spoiled snowflake. The act of protesting loses the message that something is deeply wrong with the status quo.

How often has that been the case? Climate change, Black Lives Matter, Charlottesville … they’re all worthy of understanding yet dismissed because it becomes a question of who is doing the protesting rather than what their message is or what their concerns actually are.

Colin Kaepernick: Him and fellow 49ers Eric Reid discussed with retired Green Beret Nate Boyer what kind of protest the veteran would think is acceptable that wouldn’t offend the memory of soldiers who fought and died. They compromised on half-kneeling. Half-kneeling was like a flag at half-mast. A retired Green Beret thought that was respectful.

And in theory it was.

The fact is, there is no universally accepted form of protest that won’t upset someone because protests are meant to upset. They’re meant to upset the people with power who can change things, and to shake the public out of their apathy and ignorance by showing them that shit’s real.

At the beginning of Kaepernick’s protest he stated, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color [until] there’s significant change, and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”

Good in theory, anyway. But by the looks of public opinion polls, it’s arguable the protests are having that effect at all.  

There are certainly veterans in support of Kaepernick’s protest. Veterans who resent being used as props by politicians and by people who never sacrificed, people presuming to know what veterans care about as though they are a hive mind with one opinion.

Over 90 percent of Americans won’t know what war is like but they’ll be damned to let a lapel pin or bumper sticker go un-outraged by.

“We got soldiers dying, and we got millionaires protesting our flag before they play a game,” one such American, [Lenny] Miller, told The Washington Post. “I have a major problem with that.”

Or this couple at a game:  

[photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images]  

As a country, we certainly haven’t done enough to prevent regular people from making these stupid ad-hominem associations, and we haven’t taught people to respect protesting as a last resort of the frustrated.

In Kaepernick’s case it’s simple, it's racist math. Black athletes make up over 70 percent of the NFL roster, but the NFL fan base is 83 percent white and 64 percent male. Could we reasonably expect those fans to be sympathetic to learning about institutional and systemic racism?

Consider this side of it too, that if athletes protested by not playing altogether, tens of billions of dollars in business would be disrupted, and more importantly, disrupt how people spend their time.

Entertainment takes up an enormous part of North Americans’ lives, so much that they roughly spend 5-and-half hours a day in front of a screen. Sixty-four percent of Americans watch NFL, with six in ten saying they spend roughly five hours a week watching it.

In this light, dismissing the protests serves a political purpose: they preserve the interests of those who benefit, in this case the NFL, its advertisers and the rigid beliefs held by millions of white male Americans about what their country does and is about.

But most of the time, people get nasty if you’re seen as straying from the script you’re most associated with. The president of the police union in Cleveland said after one protest “It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law. They should stick to what they know best on the field.”

America also has an uneasy history with black people taking a stand. Black athletes can raise money for Africa, or literacy in inner cities, but racism? Police brutality? Ending wars?

Even Martin Luther King Jr. went through hell to fight for civil rights and was considered to have gone “too far” protesting the war in Vietnam and speaking out against economic inequality. He was told to stay in his lane.

Put together, it’s a way to pigeon-hole the protest and bury the lead. But it’s extremely potent.

For African-Americans, the potency is beyond the normal dismissal white celebrities face. Speaking out as a black person is opening yourself up to any number of ugly reprisals. Most Americans think Islam is the biggest terrorist threat when right-wing extremism and white-on-everyone-else terrorist acts are far likelier and higher in number.

Take these as examples:

Chris Rock often talks about racism and terrorism: “Did Al Qaeda blow up the building in Oklahoma? No. Did Al Qaeda put anthrax in your mail? No. Did Al Qaeda drag James Byrd down the street until his eyeballs popped out his fucking head? No. I ain’t scared of Al Qaeda, I’m scared of Al Cracka.”

Dave Chappelle does too, once talking about the Dixie Chicks and protesting the war: “I almost protested the war in the beginning. Almost. Until I saw what happened to them Dixie Chicks I said ‘Fuck. That.’ If they do that to three white women they will tear my black ass to pieces.”

And Tommy Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the 1968 Summer Olympics for what they thought was a salute to basic human rights. Other people saw it and thought “Black Power Salute”.  

[photo by John Dominis—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images]

And when American gymnast Gabby Douglas didn’t cover her chest during the national anthem at the 2016 Olympics, the response was brutal and swift, with people telling her to go back to Africa if she’s so ungrateful.

Muhammad Ali famously went to prison for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War, too.

Get the picture?

Saying the protest is somehow racist when it’s speaking out against racism, or unpatriotic when non-violent protest is a central ingredient in American democracy, or none of their business when their celebrity gives perfect opportunity to make it their business, is just a couple of ways which we are being primed to ignore the message of protests.

It’s how we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The theory goes, if entertainment goes on strike, or concerns itself with serious topics, yes there’d be a backlash, but there would also force a conversation worth having.

Can you imagine if NHL players sat out games until real commitments and meaningful progress was made with First Nations and Indigenous peoples? Can you imagine if NBA players went on strike until mandatory minimum sentences in the War on Drugs were repealed?

In theory anyway. In theory, the masses would concern themselves with the message of the protest, but in reality that narrative can be hijacked, ridiculed, compartmentalized and dismissed. In reality there’s no way a militarized police wouldn’t have quashed protests or media blare out red herrings to distract from the message of the demonstrators.

In theory, citizens would have been equipped with critical thinking tools. In reality we never controlled for that variable in our democratic experiment.

You can’t fix what’s broken if your tools are broken. Our attitude and education towards protests are unhealthy, and we can watch it in real-time on TV. We can watch the baby thrown out with the bathwater, because nowhere were we taught that there is no perfect protest.