The irony in a gesture

The first time I saw it, I did a double-take. Honestly, there was no doubt in my mind that what I saw was a gesture of respect. After all, Tim Tebow had been kneeling just a few years before and many people loved the symbolism. Since I don’t follow U.S. football and I didn’t really know a lot about Colin Kaepernick, I had little reason to doubt that a genuflection during the solemn playing of the national anthem was anything other than a gesture of reverence. I knew both Tebow and Kaepernick were on the record making firm declarations of their Christian faiths. It took my wife — who has never successfully managed to explain football to me — to correct me, telling me Kaepernick’s dignified kneel was actually a quiet protest.

I have always considered myself a patriot but, on seeing several of Kaepernick’s early kneels, I thought he was probably the most respectful protester I had ever witnessed. Back before Kaepernick became a lightning rod, he was just a man who wanted to draw attention to the enormous disparity in the way law enforcement is conducted against people of color versus white people. The disparity is a demonstrably real long-term problem and Kaepernick figured he had the perfect low-key protest to spark a conversation.

What I didn’t discover until later was that Kaepernick sought advice to make sure he didn’t dishonor U.S. service people. Because he wanted to protest without making a big scene, Kaepernick asked fellow football player Nate Boyer what he thought if Kaepernick protested by remaining seated on the bench during the playing of the anthem. Boyer, a veteran Army Green Beret with multiple tours of Afghanistan and Iraq under his belt, suggested his friend kneel instead of sitting, because kneeling would be respectful. Kaepernick took Boyer’s advice. Both men knew taking this small action during the national anthem would garner at least a little attention.

If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last year of protests and riots, it’s that our level of discomfort is directly proportionate to the robustness of the conversation we’re having about race. The second we start to get comfortable again, the conversation stops. As it turned out, Kaepernick’s simple protest caused a much greater discomfort than anyone expected.

Boyer and Kaepernick were left reeling by the intensity of public reaction. Kneeling or genuflecting is a universal sign of submission, a gesture of honor or reverence. We kneel before God, we kneel before the cross, we kneel before sovereigns, sometimes we even kneel before a flag. If Kaepernick had turned his back on the flag or remained seated, those choices would’ve been clearly disrespectful. But kneeling? Admittedly, Kaepernick’s kneeling was a protest statement but it was a careful and dignified one.

Kaepernick’s protest ignited a great deal of public outrage. The act of genuflection — chosen specifically because it was not a disrespectful gesture — was interpreted as some sort of desecration of the flag, mockery of the anthem and/or ridicule of service members. Kaepernick was accused of everything from inciting unrest to treason. But when the hyperbole and hysteria are put aside, what he really did was try to start a needed national conversation.

“All of you people who insist on constantly talking about race are just throwing gas on the fire,” many tired white people have told me. “We just need to stop talking about race and be colorblind,” they say.

No, I reply. Emancipation created freedom but it also earned the seething resentment of white Southerners. In fact, it was only after Emancipation that Southerners furiously started erecting the bulk of their Civil War monuments — a direct slap-in-the-face to the freed Black Americans who now moved among them. Since that conflict, we’ve missed numerous opportunities to have the desperately needed referendum on race we should’ve had long ago. From the exclusion of the G.I. Bill to the intentional racism of redlining, Black Americans have never had a fair chance at achieving what white people like to call the American Dream. Not then. Not now. Not once.

It’s going to take an honest national examination of our prejudices, our assumptions, our expectations — this is the reckoning I and others are referencing.

As novelist James Baldwin correctly pointed out, not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced. Now is absolutely not the time to bury our heads in the sand, pretending that nothing is wrong. The U.S. holds the dubious dual global distinctions of highest incarceration rate and highest number of imprisoned people. Further, Black people are imprisoned at a rate more than five times that of whites. One of every three Black male youths can expect to serve a prison sentence. Land of the free? Not so much.

The cost of Kaepernick’s protest was enormous. He effectively lost his career and might, for a while, have been the most hated man in America. But the movement he launched has contributed significantly to getting us talking about race. A century from now, history will almost certainly have declared Colin Kaepernick a hero of the civil rights movement. You don’t have to like the guy or to embrace his more controversial antics, but no one can argue his method of protest was downright respectable when compared to, say, invading the U.S. Capitol.

When Colin Kaepernick kneels, he does so silently. With a measure of quiet dignity, he kneels for an average of one minute and forty-three seconds, the median length of a game-time anthem. Last week gave us a sickening close-up look at another kneeling incident, as video was played in court over and over. This kneel lasted nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds. It cost one man his life and sent another to prison. In the most twisted of ironies, the nine-and-a-half-minute kneel was exactly the sort of violence Kaepernick was condemning with his quiet, stoic act of protest.

This essay originally appeared in the April 29, 2021 edition of the News-Register, McMinnville, Oregon.

Photograph © Keith Johnston via Pixabay

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