When I first saw San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick take a knee—joined by free safety Eric Reid—during the singing of “The Star-Bangled Banner” before their game against the San Diego Chargers Thursday night, I threw up a mental black power fist. I did so because I believed it to be a show of solemn respect for the lives of those murdered, brutalized and raped by police officers and white supremacists in this country.
After viewing his postgame interview and reading several interviews, I realized that he took a knee to show respect for the military after coming to a pregame compromise with former Green Beret and long snapper Nate Boyer. It is completely understandable—and admirable—that Kaepernick would show reciprocal respect to the thousands of veterans who supported him over the last couple of days with the hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick.
And while I respect him for that, this much-needed dialogue on the convergence of patriotism and police brutality continues to shift focus to the U.S. armed forces that destroy and conquer abroad—and their defensiveness and hurt feelings—instead of remaining on the armed forces that occupy and commit murder in communities of color right here in this country. Such a deflection reeks of corporate damage control, political disingenuousness and a cultural privileging of the military over the movement for which Kaepernick has continued to stand.
It does the government no favors to link militarism with police brutality and the global violence that the U.S. is responsible for inflicting; nor does it make things easier for them when we expose that the military weapons used against protesters in Ferguson, Mo., were provided to police by the U.S. government—just as overflow military weapons have been provided to other police departments across the country. When we become complicit in the convenient myth that we're dealing with two mutually exclusive issues, justice in an unjust country becomes harder to define. And the connection between the military-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex seems a lot less urgent.
That is the danger of patriotism and promises—the idea that if we could just become a part of the American dream, we would wake up from the American nightmare. We have not yet reckoned with the reality that for many people, they are one and the same. And as I've written previously, we haven't even reckoned with how it must feel for black veterans to risk their lives for a country that hates them for their freedom—while sending them to take the freedoms (and lives) of others on its behalf.
Muhammad Ali talked about this in 1966 when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War:
My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me n—ger, they 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.…Shoot them for what? How do I got to go shoot them, poor little black people, little babies, children, and women? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about "the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism" and made his opposition to U.S. imperialism clear in his 1967 speech "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam":
I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.
For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence I cannot be silent. Been a lot of applauding over the last few years. They applauded our total movement; they’ve applauded me. America and most of its newspapers applauded me in Montgomery. And I stood before thousands of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, “We can’t do it this way.”
They applauded us in the sit-in movement—we nonviolently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was saying, “Be nonviolent toward Bull Connor”; when I was saying, “Be nonviolent toward [Selma segregationist sheriff] Jim Clark.” There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, “Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark,” but will curse and damn you when you say, “Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children.”
So despite what Kaepernick critics may say—"MLK would never; Ali would never"—yes, they absolutely would and did. And despite the whitewashing that this country does to hide its own stink and rot, we must continue to tell it like they did. We must continue to make it plain like Malcolm did.
Make no mistake—I will continue to support Colin Kaepernick and take pride in his protest. I will continue to view him as a role model for my three sons and applaud his putting his money where his mouth is by donating $1 million of his salary to social-justice organizations and $60,000 worth of backpacks to New York City children. He has faced scorn, the threat of violence, relentless mockery and the possibility of professional consequences. He has started a critical conversation that has disrupted business as usual. He has also stayed true to his fight to raise awareness about police brutality through it all. Those facts cannot and should not be minimized, nor dismissed.
Still, as King said, "We need a true revolution of values."
None of us are free until all of us are free. We cannot perpetuate the lie that the violent state occupation of the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson and New York and Baton Rouge, La., and Jackson, Miss., and Prairie View, Texas, is not the same U.S. imperialist violence destroying Libya and Palestine and Yemen and Somalia. "Not all military" is just as much of a dangerous deflection as "not all cops."
This is institutional and systemic oppression—and the entire system is guilty as hell.