by Marissa Jenae Johnson
It’s the beginning of a new football season for the NFL and, like almost every other facet of American life, the movement for Black lives has left its mark. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines weeks ago when he sat for the national anthem during their pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers. When reporters asked why he chose not to stand for the anthem, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
His action quickly became a new platform for conversations around the movement for Black lives. Kaepernick’s stance (or lack thereof) has inspired others, including Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane and Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, to join him. As the Seattle Seahawks prepare for their first game of the season today against the Miami Dolphins on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, talk has been swirling about a possible team-wide protest.
Earlier this week, Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin spoke with reporters about his support of Kaepernick and admitted he’d thought about taking similar action, stressing that “anything we want to do, it’s not going to be individual”. Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner seemed to confirm the idea of a team-wide action.
Media outlets ran with this news and U.S. Uncut even went so far as to publish an article titled “The Entire Seattle Seahawks Team Will Protest The National Anthem At Opening Game.” The backlash was swift and, within hours, fans were outraged by the potential protest. A local mayor even cancelled his city’s Seahawk’s rally in light of the news. By Saturday afternoon, though, Baldwin had clarified his previous statements saying the team would “stand and interlock arms in unity,” along with a promotional video via his twitter.
Some who were cheering the Seahawks earlier this week denounced the newly released plans and others who had condemned the idea of a Black lives matter protest now cheered. But bigger than the question of what will happen today is our larger understanding around why these protests matter and what purpose they serve politically.
If the Seahawks do indeed stand up and link arms for the national anthem in today’s game their actions will not only be a failure in aiding the movement for Black lives, but they will undermine the very work of active resistance that first inspired them. Far from helping to liberate Black people, their show of colorblind complacency would be worse than if they had never said anything at all.
To be fair, the parameters around what makes an athlete’s symbolic action “pro-Black” were already blurred very quickly after Kaepernick’s first protest. By his own words, he intended for the protest to amplify the efforts of those fighting against police terrorism against Black people in America. But when the backlash began, Kaepernick’s action was very intentionally framed as an attack on veterans. Almost instantly the conversation shifted from police brutality to veteran support – a conversation where Black lives lose on either side.
It is a common move, historically, to get Black people to be complicit in America’s genocidal imperialism by promising to make them citizens. It is a trade off. Get Black folks to internalize their nationalism and they won’t help Natives reclaim their land. Offer Black people, often already economically exploited, money and resources to join the military and they won’t have a problem killing and terrorizing ‘the foreigner’ oversees. It’s what Muhammad Ali was talking about when he spoke about refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War: “They never called me ‘nigger’, never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father.”
But most people, and likewise Black people, are not aware of how interconnected our oppression is with other POC groups. And it is for this reason many Black people, being raised like all Americans in deep and illogical nationalism, feel inspired by the movement for Black lives only to become trapped by their almost subconscious commitment to a country that has never been for them.
Which is why, when faced with the notion of “disrespecting veterans”, Kaepernick changed his stance from a sit to a kneel as, in his words, a gesture towards honoring veterans. And just like that, an action that was supposed to highlight the plight of Black Americans instead came to symbolize Black support of white supremacist, imperialistic, American nationalism. What began as a freedom call, ended up flexing to the respectability politics around US military and gave “support” to a military that has been used to exterminate and exploit brown and Black people across the globe.
Nonetheless, Kaepernick is trying to push forward to a pro-Black stand. He did not back down from his protest amidst death threats and harassment and he seems to be taking strides to support the movement. But as others begin to join him, his message can either get strengthened or whitewashed. The Seahawks plan for today threatens to do the latter.
With the Seahawks proposed “protest” not only do they reinforce anti-Black American nationalism, but the language around the fight for Black lives has been dropped altogether. Instead of a call to address the specific oppression of Black people in America, their messaging has come to mirror #alllivesmatter rhetoric.
What’s worse is that with their linked arms, players like Lane who would have already sat down in protest will now be physically forced to stand for the status quo. Symbolic protest is nothing if it is not messaging, and the Seahawk’s latest plan shows that the pro-Black messaging that started with Kaepernick’s first sit has now been completely bought out in a superficial show of patriotism.
It’s not as though the NFL needs any more acts of patriotism. In fact, they get paid millions by the US government to hold those grand ceremonies. It is more likely that they are protecting their interests. Indeed, the NFL and the US government are quite similar in that they both exploit Black bodies for profit and will do anything to maintain that power. Lure in vulnerable Black bodies, beat and exploit them while paying them a relative penance, all the while make them believe they truly are a part of your “tribe” then discard and forget about them after they have served their usefulness. It should come as no surprise that both major institutions would be aligned in changing the narrative around a possible player revolt.
So whether you support the Seattle Seahawks and their action today depends not only on what they do, but on what you believe politically. If you “support our troops” and believe that all our nations racial ills can be solved with #alllivesmatter and a kumbaya, their standing and linking arms during the anthem will make you proud. If you recognize the hypocrisy of standing for the anthem while Black people continue to be oppressed, but haven’t connected our oppression to US imperialism, then you would prefer they take a knee. If you understand both the evilness of US nationalism and the importance of the fight for Black lives, then you probably would like to see the players sit, symbolizing their divestment from the hypocritical show altogether.
And if you are like me, one who understands the brainwashing of US nationalism and who is dedicated to active and militant resistance in the fight for Black lives, you might prefer an even stronger stance: that players remain standing in a posture of power, but turn their backs to a flag that represents the global oppression of Black and brown people.
But, more likely, today’s action will be decided by the thing that informs all of American politics and life: money. Stand, kneel, sit or otherwise we will know the players’ politics. And as we witness time and time again in Black liberation movements, we will learn among our skin folk whose resistance can be bought if the price is white.