It seems clear that Donald Trump will manufacture or grasp at anything he can to divide Americans from each other.
Even use one of America’s favorite past times: football.
Trump has attacked and called for the firing of mostly black athletes who participated in the protests, repeatedly blasting them on Twitter and calling them sons of bitches during a campaign rally in Alabama on Friday.
There is a familiar pattern here with Trump. He tweets or says something outrageous at a time when the leadership of the president of the United States is needed the most. At a time when more than 3.5 million Americans in Puerto Rico are dealing with the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the Russia scandal continues to burn embers and a war of words continue to escalate with North Korea, what does Trump do?
He calls black players protest police brutality names and rescinds an invitation to NBA player Stephen Curry after he refuses the invitation to the White House for winning the NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors.
And he got what he wanted, a firestorm of response. He is apt at the politics of division, using them as a diversion from the larger picture. He is attempting to hijack what was a statement against racial injustice in America and dilute the issue to make it solely about the American flag and the national anthem.
It is also apparent that Trump has no respect for the Constitution and the First Amendment rights protected within it. He has brought new meaning to the term “bully pulpit” as he continues to punch private citizens, this time by calling for black athletes who are exercising their freedom of speech to be fired.
Trump’s response to these protests are in stark contrast to President Obama’s, who in a 2016 presidential town hall was questioned about football players taking a knee in protest and used the opportunity to call for dialogue and understanding. “Out of these controversies, we start a conversation,” Obama said. “I want everybody to listen to each other.”
In 2016, ex-San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the #TakeAKnee protests when he refused to stand for the national anthem as a way of calling attention to police brutality and racial inequality in America. He quickly became a national pariah to conservatives and the media. ESPN hosts regularly blasted him and news channels would play clips of angry football fans yelling at the camera in anger over Kaepernick taking a knee during the anthem.
Kaepernick is now a free agent, with some believing that his protests are the reason as to why he remains unsigned for the 2017 season.
The NFL has always had a traditional American character. It has been an official sponsor of the U.S. military for years, acting as an effective recruiter for the pentagon. Its demographics consist of a fan base that is roughly 83 percent white, 64 percent male, 51 percent 45 years or older, only 32 percent made less than $60,000 a year, with registered Republicans 21 percent more likely to be NFL fans than registered Democrats.
Considering all that, it was surprising to see the #TakeAKnee protests went viral on Sunday, as dozens of players, and even team owners, knelt or stood with arms locked together in solidarity as a response to Donald Trump’s attacks against black athletes. The Pittsburgh Steelers decided to stay in the locker room during the anthem.
Peaceful protests, such as #TakeAKnee and #BlackLivesMatter, are considered controversial to some as they happen. That is the history of race in this country. But these efforts are justified and effective in calling attention to injustice. Protests, even those that seem to be obviously just in hindsight, are rarely popular as they are going on.
During the Civil Rights Movement, for example, 61 percent of Americans approved of the 1961 Freedom Riders sit-ins and 57 percent thought that they hurt chances of desegregation, vs. 22 percent who approved and 28 percent who thought they helped. Meanwhile, 6 in 10 Americans had an unfavorable opinion of the historic March on Washington, compared to 23 percent who found it favorable. A poll conducted in 1966 found that 85 percent of white respondents thought that “demonstrations by negroes” hurt the advancement for civil rights compared to 15 percent who thought they helped.
It is unfortunate that the current president is attempting to obfuscate the issue of racial inequality in America. His sympathy towards white supremacists is well documented and he will surely continue to divide the American public in an effort to score cheap political points. However, racial inequity in this country has been around before Trump and will continue beyond his presidency. The actions of people, such as Colin Kaepernick, help to highlight these injustices to the general public.
Thomas Kennedy is a communications fellow for the Center for Community Change.