The Kaepernick story is the perfect storm of American patriotism colliding directly with the civil rights movement and teasing out the hypocritical and heartfelt extremes of both. As backyard beanbag and barbecue champions across the land now seize this opportunity to use the n-word between their f-words, the shrine of vicarious American violence at last has a lamb to sacrifice at its altar.
Anheuser Busch’s flagship product, Budweiser, has temporarily been renamed America, just in time for drunken halftime Kaepernick hating. The #7 shirts burned in effigy are posted all over YouTube. Kaepernick merchandise boycotts have been called for. The 2016-2017 season is not yet under way and Kaepernick has thrown a can of gasoline onto the raging bonfire of alt-right identity comfort that has recently become enheartened by the Trump campaign. Kaepernick has sixteen full weeks to continue dispatching salt into this gaping wound, and the opportunity for a full NFL season of race-baiting joy is being salivated over by opportunist pundits from the left and right.
My immediate thought was that Kaepernick’s passive-aggressive refusal to stand during the national anthem was an antagonistic, sullen and unhelpful means of expression, and that if he wished to contribute to the national dialog on this topic, which is very much welcoming of high-profile voices right now, he could do so in a way that doesn't throw such conspicuous disrespect on a class of people who absolutely do not deserve it, which is to say, veterans. The anthem means a lot me, but it means even more to veterans, and to accept harm to the hearts of our veterans as reasonable collateral damage for this unoriginal, vague and uncreative means of protest seemed to me at first blush an insensitive and disappointing play.
That said, what are we talking about right now? Oppression in America through the lens of Kaepernick’s protest. So, shut my mouth. He did it. He elevated the volume of the conversation, if not yet its clarity. He did what he wanted to do and he did it successfully. But, and it’s a very big but, the job is not over. He now has an opportunity, and I think an obligation, to offer an articulate howl of protest and to be a mouthpiece through which some of America’s persistent racial injustices can be described and identified for redress.
If he elects not to do that, if he prefers instead to keep making this dull, imprecise and gratuitously cruel gesture every week, for the mere fact alone of it delivering undeserved harm to American veterans, his protest is a loser for me. If, on the other hand, he assumes the mantle of courage and explains his frustration with the pace of civil rights reform, the unacceptability of double standards in policing and other areas of racial inequity, and does so in clear language in an open forum, I’ll applaud as loudly as anyone. In my opinion, he should hop onto this immediately and make a gesture of good faith.
Picture this. Kaepernick lays out the frustrations of minority Americans loud and clear at a press conference, and then accompanies that with language expressing hope. Were he to say, for instance, that the elevated attention to issues of racial imparity in policing makes him optimistic for real change in the near future, so optimistic in fact that he will stand proudly for the anthem throughout the entirety of the regular season, the entire tenor of his gesture would change from cynical to hopeful and from dark to vibrant.
A gesture of that sort would be a masterstroke for Kaepernick, and maybe that’s what he has in mind. He needs to do something, because without putting a finer point on his protest, it is doomed to have an identity rooted only in the problem rather than in the solution.