Democracy at its knees


Kimathi Mururi

Love is the world’s most potent political weapon. If a population can be convinced to truly love an idea, political figure, or nation, a democracy very quickly divorces itself from the core democratic values of criticism and improvement. The idea that a country is perfect, “the greatest on earth,” or inherently deserving of respect breeds immutable issues with how we are able to see our society and change it.


This is what I present as the cardinal issue with political discourse in the United States of America. It becomes difficult to have a rational conversation about social issues when it is considered heresy to question the state, its army, or its police. A most approachable example of this phenomenon has come about recently from, surprisingly, the NFL. Silence has ended in a way that makes many irrationally uncomfortable. As such, many have people fervently condemned the National Anthem Protest, lead by Colin Kaepernick.


The situation has received considerable, scattered coverage, so here are the facts, simplified: beginning on August 14th, San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the pregame singing of The Star Spangled Banner (the American National Anthem), which is sung prior to every NFL game. On the 26th of August, he did the same thing, and it was noticed through a photo on Twitter. This has since continued, every game. He explained after the game on the 26th that he sits as a symbol of disapproval toward the oppression of minorities in the United States, namely police brutality and to an extent, veterans.


In the weeks since, several athletes have joined this protest of the US national anthem, most subscribing to his same reasoning. These include Kaepernick’s teammate, Eric Reed, NFL players from various teams, and US women’s national soccer team midfielder, Megan Rapinoe.


And the internet exploded. All comers declared either full support or condemnation of these actions. This article focuses on the latter – why it is ill conceived, bad for discourse, and plainly wrong.


It’s almost comical, in 2016, that an article such as this must be prefaced with proof of the existence institutionalized racism, but it must, so here is a fraction of the laundry list of examples: For the skeptics of police brutality, I present the statistic that the police use of force rate is 2.5 times higher on black individuals in the USA than the national average (NYT). Despite making up 2% of the population, black men between 15 and 34 comprise 15% of the fatal cases of police use of force in the United States. According to the US Department of Justice, only one in sixteen black women who are sexual assault victims will report the crime (mostly citing mistrust in the system, or fear of being rejected by the police), while white sexual assault victims report at a rate of one in six cases (CDC). In the United States, black drivers are 31% more likely to be pulled over in an unjust traffic stop. Black and white citizens use marijuana at roughly the same rate (percentage of population), but black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession (HuffPost). The sentences of black male offenders were found by a New York Times study to be 14.5% longer than those of their white male counterparts for the same crime (WSJ). This face valued mistreatment and anti-coloured bias, that has resulted in dozens of black citizens being killed by police actions (with varying degrees of justifiable use of force, see: the death of Eric Garner) is the target of these protests. There’s more to be said, but if the pattern isn’t obvious, anything more would be redundant.


The protest at hand is not only necessary, it’s damned effective too. A symbolic protest of this ilk is designed to do exactly what it has done: cause noise. The attention these athletes have received is astounding. It has become a topic of real national concern, giving a platform on which they can advocate the desperately needed change. The discomfort that white America feels right now is exactly the outcome that was needed. Additionally, the one million dollars that Kaepernick has pledged to community projects in low income/black neighbourhoods prove that this is already more than the “slacktivism” that plagues social justice. This, combined with the unquantifiable number of young black boys and girls who have a new hero, and the confidence to know they need not ask permission to fight for their rights, gives these actions a net positive effect.


Undeniably, however, there has been too much focus on the kneeling and not enough about the oppression it condemns. I contend that this results from failures by two actors: the media, and white America. Kapernick has quite clearly stated what he stands for, but the pestering notions that he is disrespectful, unclear, or should emigrate from the USA persist because that is what observers want to focus on. I challenge all onlookers to, for a moment, imagine the situation complexly, and ask what could be so bad that it compels him to do this. In this, I pray there is a shift in conversation, a few personal epiphanies, and that more people might properly recognize this problem that we must combat.


I would like to present one additional, more aggressive claim: all of those who stand at attention and refuse to question the armed forces or the state are more disrespectful to veterans and 9/11 survivors than Kaepernick ever could be. Here’s why:


Veterans and survivors symbolize the potential to build a better America. That is exactly what Kaepernick approaches. Complicity with the status quo actively harms that initiative. Since 9/11, the American government has failed to pass survivor benefits legislation on three occasions. Twenty-two US army veterans commit suicide each day, while thousands of soldiers suffer in silence with PTSD, or the knowledge that they cannot report the superior who sexually assaulted them, all while Veteran’s Affairs is criminally under resourced.


This is why the #VeteransForKaepernick has gathered steam. The people that many claim to speak for are speaking for themselves. And their cry is resounding: the system for which they laid down their lives is broken, and the right to point out that fact is the most important one left. The fallibility of the country has been recognized by the people who loved it enough to defend it, and saw its values in its purest form throughout their service. It’s up to the rest of the population to use the rights they defended to its benefit.


So I submit that the ultimate form of disrespect to the troops is ignoring their cries. I would say the same about black America, but it wouldn’t be as impactful – and for that I grieve. Our ode to the troops should not be during the first pitch at ballgames, or the one hundred and twenty seconds of a dated war tune – it should be striving every day to make it better. That is why, in sitting down, Kaepernick has stood up. In the purest form of the word, he is a hero.


Here is the peaceful but powerful demonstration that conservative America demanded. Wake up and smell the burning jerseys: a large part of the population either sees the problem, and simply values black lives less, or is wilfully ignorant in the information age. Which is worse? I cannot be sure. My only certainty at this juncture is this: standing for a song, and saluting a flag the way Uncle Sam taught you, while he turns around to misuse the system he gave you, means nothing.


With thanks to Colin Kaepernick, whose actions – and cornrows – inspired the confidence for this article