If you’ve been reading the news, you’ll see that once again, we are having a national conversation about kneeling during the anthem. Are these discussions about the institutional racism that inspired people to kneel in the first place? No. This act of protest has mutated into a gesture with Trump at the center of discussion. The attention towards Trump instead of the racism that made people start kneeling in the first place is a dangerous act of whitewashing.
When Colin Kaepernick kneeled for the first time, just four months before the election of President Trump, his reasoning was clear. Kaepernick said himself, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and 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.” Kaepernick took a knee because of his anger at police brutality and how in his view, he lives in a country where black lives don’t matter. He’s not kneeling because of Trump, although I doubt Trump made things better in his mind. The bottom line is his kneeling was never about Trump. It was about an institutionalized system of racism that allowed police officers to shoot unarmed black men without punishment. That system existed before Trump was president, and it will sadly exist after Trump leaves office.
Kaepernick’s views are integral to kneeling. You can’t separate the fight against police brutality from taking a knee because taking a knee during the anthem only exists due to this struggle. Yet when Trump called the kneeling players “sons of bitches,” this allowed the media to transform kneeling from a protest about police racism to a gesture to symbolize the more comfortable issue of Trump’s offensiveness. When 27 NFL players kneeled during last Sunday’s first football game, David Corn, a write for the publication Mother Jones, tweeted out that “The kneel will now become a sign of opposition to Trump.” Whatever meaning kneeling had before Trump is gone; it has now became another way to show nonspecific resistance to Trump. More digestible to mainstream American, this is what the media and the NFL wanted.
Police brutality by its nature is an uncomfortable thing to talk about. There is no way to get around that. This is evident in the NFL’s lack of reluctance to even comment on the issue. However Trump’s statements on players kneeling gave the NFL an easy way out. The NFL could have named what their players were protesting. Instead, they made a statement so vague it could have been used to defend anything. They chose the latter because criticizing Trump is a very comfortable thing to discuss. A topic comfortable enough that NFL owners such as Dan Snyder can kneel with his players while still donating a million dollars to the Trump campaign.
Even Alicia Garza, cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement expressed her anger at the media’s portrayal tweeting out, “”No y’all kneeling isn’t about “diversity and inclusion.” Stop that shit. It’s about racism and police violence. Full stop.”
What we’ve been seeing is what I call the whitewashing of kneeling during the anthem: instead of having a discussion about the anti-black racism that inspired Kaepernick in the first place, much of the media has erased it from the conversation entirely. When news sources whitewash kneeling, they are preventing a national discussion on brutality, a conversation that is necessary. This makes the meaning of kneeling comfortable at the expense of keeping it relevant, and that’s dangerous. Rather than a symbol of protesting racism, it has become an easy way to protest an unpopular and divisive president. The problem with this is that much of the media has removed Kaepernick and what he stands for from his own protest.
Kneeling has never been simply an act of resisting Trump or any politician, but a message about police violence and its effect on African-Americans. The reason players protest at sporting events is because they want us — the audience — to see them and to be forced to acknowledge their grievances, even if we might disagree with them. These athletes’ message was to introduce accountability to the police and their message was specific. If someone takes a knee, they should make sure they are supporting these specific principles of police reform; our national conversation should be about that, not turning this into another show of “resistance.” Trump may have brought this issue back on the front page, but the correct response isn’t to warp kneeling into an act of “protesting Trump,” but to make the national conversation about the real issues to started this movement.
I support taking a knee because I support the values it stands for, because I support police reform and because I’m horrified by the same headlines these players are.
This is not about Trump.
The biggest thing the resistance can do is to ensure that Trump does not erase Kaepernick’s message.
Featured Photo: Among the many teams to feature players kneeling during the national anthem, players of the Washington Redskins protested during a Sept. 24 game. Keith Allison/Flickr