Saturday, September 10, 2016

Taking A Knee

Colin Kaepernick has started something. On August 26, the 49ers quarterback decided to sit during the national anthem before the preseason game against the Packers. His decision not to stand during the anthem has elicited consternation and praise. More interesting than all the commentary, however, are the similar acts of protest in the wake of his own.

A Navy sailor sat during the national anthem on her base.

A high school football team took a knee during the anthem under the Friday night lights.

And Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall took a knee before the first regular season game on September 8.

I've seen many posts online the decry these actions. As predictable as these responses are, I have to admit that I still find them baffling. This particular moment in the long history of civil rights in the United States only serves to highlight some of the most confounding tensions at the heart of who we are as a nation.

Each patriotically-inflected holiday, sentiments abound online and at public events centering on the uniqueness of American freedom. But in moments such as this, the caveats and restrictions of such sentiments come to light. We discover that the only vision of freedom that is acceptable to us is that which allows us to rest comfortably in our points of view.

Patriotism, my dear compatriots, is not required to be an American. Were it required, we could not tout our freedom. Moreover, the brand of uncritical patriotism--love of country that gives no space to critical thought--that underlies so many critiques of Kaepernick and the movement he has inspired has become normative: the only acceptable way to be an American, it seems, is to accept without question that the ideals of our country somehow absolve it from the many systems of injustice and oppression that persist and thrive. This should make any lover of freedom nervous, American or otherwise.

So far from the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., we do not even recognize civil disobedience when we see it. We do not even recognize the very logic of a truly American version of freedom because we have let it become warped into nationalism. What Kaepernick and others are doing is wholly, uniquely American. Theirs is a quiet refusal to stand idly by as their nation proves itself so unmoored from its original, lofty goal: to sustain a place for people to be truly free in what they say, what/whom they worship, and what they do with their lives.

By taking a knee (an evolution of Kaepernick's original protest), the athlete adopts the same posture as when there is an injury on the field. Anyone who played sports as a kid knows this. You kneel out of respect. You kneel to wait. You kneel to acknowledge that something has gone wrong. You kneel to pay attention. You kneel to divert attention from you--your team, your strategy, your concerns--and draw attention toward what's wrong. And there is plenty wrong.