Colin Kaepernick, a second-string NFL quarterback of former Super Bowl fame, provoked an eruption of vitriol and solidarity when he refused to stand during the national anthem. His explanation reverberated around the country: “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.”
The media and the establishment launched a vengeful smear campaign, embracing attacks on his religion, his biraciality, and even his biological mother’s public rejection of his protest via Twitter. Meanwhile, broad sections of American workers responded with support and adoration, and his team jersey became the number-one bestseller on NFL.com—no small feat for a backup QB on a struggling team.
Kaepernick’s professional and even personal security was on the line, as speculation grew that his days as a 49er were coming to an end and anonymous death threats mounted. A minority of his jersey sales were apparently due to detractors lighting them on fire for viral YouTube videos. But Kaepernick persisted with moral conviction and calm audacity. He appeared at a press conference in a shirt featuring Malcolm X and Fidel Castro on the front, warmed up in socks revealing cartoon pigs in police uniforms, and wore his hair out in a defiant Afro. A question regarding the above-mentioned footwear returned this response: “Once again, we have cops that are murdering people.”
Asked if he may be cut from the team, he answered: “I don’t know. But if I [am], I know I did what’s right. And I can live with that at the end of the day.” He explained, “This stand wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”
In addition to police brutality and racism, Kaepernick indicates Clinton and Trump (“proven liars” who are “trying to debate who is less racist”); lack of change in the last eight years of the Obama presidency; Islamophobia; veteran suicides; and economic inequality as examples of “a lot of issues in this country that we need to deal with.” His appeal is no mystery. Recent high-profile police killings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott and the explosive protests that engulfed Charlotte, North Carolina put an exclamation mark at the end of his words, “there are bodies in the street.”
In the four years since the murder of Trayvon Martin, many Americans have silently simmered in indignation as one police killing of an unarmed black man after another set off firestorms on social media and protests across the country. This is just one of many sources of rising heat in US society. Sooner or later, a boiling point will be reached.
Before 2012, police brutality and racism were horrid, yet unremarkable norms of everyday American life under capitalism. What has changed so dramatically is the reaction from ordinary people. In the US and around the world, workers are increasingly fed up with what the capitalist system has to offer. In this context figures like Kaepernick can emerge to express a certain social mood. For all of Kaepernick’s courage and charisma, the role of the individual is secondary to their objective conditions. The key is the mass consciousness reflected by Kaepernick and its potential to directly affect events in the future.
Kaepernick is not the first or the last to play this role. He stands on the shoulders of Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Paul Robeson, and many others. Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman’s iconic protest at the 1968 Olympics is a direct inspiration for Kaepernick, and he shares a mentor with them in Harry Edwards. Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had It Made, anticipates Kaepernick:
There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.
Two recent predecessors also deserve mention. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the anthem in 1996 and called the flag “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny.” Punitive measures by the NBA forced a compromise in which he would stand, but look downwards with his eyes closed. The legendary free-throw shooter would be pushed out of the NBA shortly thereafter. In 2006, the star homerun hitter, Carlos Delgado, remained in the dugout through the singing of “God Bless America” to protest the Iraq War. The media and public opinion bullied him into submission. What makes Kaepernick so different? We live in markedly different conditions today than ten or twenty years ago. As Malcolm X explained generations ago, we are “living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time where there’s got to be a change.”
A number of professional athletes joined Kaepernick’s stand. But it is high school age (and younger) athletes who stepped forward in the greatest numbers. Sometimes it was a solitary player, facing down the hostility of their teammates, their opponents, and the crowd. Sometimes the entire team came together and protested as one. This is a profound sign of struggles to come.
Celebrities, politicians, and pundits hurled every possible slander at Kaepernick. We were informed that he is a traitor to this country, shamelessly disrespecting “our troops.” Kaepernick reminded them of the broad support he’s received from many veterans, including the “#VeteransForKaepernick” hashtag on Twitter. Some of the veterans’ social media posts went further left and attacked American imperialism directly.
After consulting a veteran in the NFL, Kaepernick began to take a knee during the anthem, rather than sitting on the bench. In sports, sitting on the bench signifies removal from the game. Players “take a knee” to end a play or when a player is injured, demonstrating respect and engagement.
Kaepernick is not wrong to differentiate his condemnation of the brutality of the state and his attitude towards individuals in the military. The rank and file are primarily drawn from the working class. Revolutions throughout history provide many examples in which the rank and file fraternize with the masses and break with the military command, thus sweeping the rug out from underneath the regime.
However, there is an important difference between the class background of military personnel and the capitalist state itself. While Kaepernick attracted the support of many working-class soldiers and veterans, the state made its position clear on the matter when it attacked the #BlackLivesMatter protestors in Charleston and continued a chauvinistic policy of imperialist intervention in Syria.
The nature of big business and the state is exemplified by the fact that until 2009, no NFL players stood for the anthem. Then, in a new marketing strategy to appear more patriotic, the league moved the players from the locker room to the field for the ceremony. Between 2011 and 2015, the Department of Defense and the National Guard paid American sports teams more than $53 million for “marketing and advertising contracts,” according to a 2015 congressional report.
The report continues, “Over the course of the effort, we discovered the startling fact that DOD cannot accurately account for how many contracts it has awarded or how much has been spent.” But this is merely a drop in the ocean. According to an August story on CNN, “The US Army made trillions of dollars of accounting mistakes and often did not have the receipts or invoices needed to support figures in its budget.” These are the same people who cry out in scandal and horror when a backup quarterback sits for a song. Their hypocrisy reflects the society they defend—capitalism, a system of sanctified police brutality, million-dollar patriotism, and trillion-dollar waste.
A class analysis can clarify Kaepernick’s much-debated patriotism. He explained, “Once again, I’m not anti-American. I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar added, “[Kaepernick] behaved in a highly patriotic manner.” Others loudly disagreed. In a way, the critics are “correct” to see him as an affront to The Star Spangled Banner, but they do not go far enough. The interests of every single worker in this country, of any and every individual who stands against the crimes of this system, are opposed to those of Francis Scott Key, the anthem’s author and an anti-abolitionist slave-holder, whose views on slavery were included in a now officially forgotten verse in the anthem’s original text.
We live in a society of haves and have-nots, replete with all of the attendant bigotry and brutality required for such a state of affairs. The cleavage between the interests of the workers and the capitalists extends to the whole of society and the beliefs, aims, and attitudes thereof. The divisive views on Kaepernick’s “patriotism” are a faithful representation of the class divide that is hardwired into any capitalist nation. Langston Hughes understood this well when he wrote “Let America Be America Again,” a poem contrasting the America of the ruling class and the aspirations of the masses. He called to the workers, “make America again!”, and vividly described the way to do it: socialist revolution.
Patriotism is an alien sentiment to Marxists. Our exclusive allegiance is to the workers of the world; socialism is internationalist, or it is nothing. But in the history of every country on the globe, genuine national brilliance and heroism can be found in the coming to life of the toiling masses and their struggles against “their” ruling class. One lesson is clear from America past and present: This system was born in revolution, and it will end with one.