Want To Know Why Athletes Chose To #TakeAKnee? Look At Our Broken Justice System

09/26/2017 03:13 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2017
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Paul Sliva
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By Fredrick McKissack, Jr.

In an alternate universe, the White House is populated with adroit thinkers who consider that the fastest way to revive a conversation about race and class would be to have a cautious president let slip his feelings about a handful of pro football players silently protesting racial injustice by kneeling during the National Anthem.

Understanding the need for ad hominem rather than logical arguments, he takes the platform in a southern state already reeling from issues over race and culture, and refers to these men, overwhelmingly African American, as “SOBs.” He says these ungrateful athletes ought to be fired by their owners, who are overwhelmingly white.

Reaction by professional football is swift.

Not only do millionaire players of all races protest en masse ― all but one Pittsburgh Steeler stayed in the locker room during the anthem ― they’re backed up by their billionaire employers, some of whom are outspoken supporters of the president’s fiscal policies.

Athletes from other sports join in, including Lebron James, who refers to the president as a “bum,” and Dale Earnhardt Jr., a revered NASCAR legend, tweets out a John F. Kennedy quote about free speech and revolution. Neither the Golden State Warriors or the University of North Carolina ― the NBA and college basketball champions respectively ― will travel to the White House the traditional photo-op and visit.

Reporters, talking heads, politicians, and ordinary folk are savvy enough to drop the visceral reactions to ask a basic question that had been out of reach for a year: What was Colin Kaepernick reacting to in the first place?

Dialogue begins, and the dawn rises on a real discussion of the repercussions of the savage inequalities in the criminal justice system, from police shootings to prison rates.

Ah, if only.

Unfortunately, the White House is populated by men and women who appear to be out of their depth. Donald Trump consistently strays into areas that require nuance. Instead, he spits fire, then retreats to safety.

Healing is not part of his deal. Indeed, the administration, most noticeably through the Justice Department, is dismantling decades of Civil Rights work that was meant to right centuries of injustice. In that view, the president’s response may be disquieting, but hardly surprising.

And what of Colin Kaepernick, the best out of work quarterback on the planet? He explained his protest in an interview last season. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

And there’s the frustration that I feel now ― the rants about entitled athletes disrespecting veterans and the country with Kaepernick’s thesis buried in the shrill cacophony of misguided and phony patriotism.

If you want to know what our damaged justice system looks like, take a look at a recent report by the Sentencing Project: “Black youth were more than five times as likely to be detained or committed compared to white youth, according to data from the Department of Justice collected in October 2015 and recently released.”

Or read what ArchCity Defenders have been tackling in the St. Louis Metropolitan region since the death of Michael Brown in August 2014, including defending a falsely charged ex-Navy veteran whose four-year odyssey in the criminal justice system cost him his job and his home.

Even libertarian organizations are busting myths such as the “war on cops,” as well as showing the harm to communities by the administration’s militarization of the police, whose tactics and weaponry have been on display in St. Louis after the dismissal of homicide charges against a white police officers in the shooting death of a black motorist.

St. Louis police tactics led to physical actions taken against non-violent protesters, including a grandmother who was seen being choked by an officer, and an Air Force lieutenant, who was outside watching a protest in his neighborhood, and says he and his wife were inexplicably mistreated by police.

“It was incredibly unnecessary,” he says. “I’ve had training on how to arrest and be arrested, and I capitulated to every demand that was made of me, even before I was on the ground.”

What began as one man’s quiet protest before a football game has now become solidarity between players, coaches, and even some owners, none of whom, as of NFL’s week 3, have employed Colin Kaepernick.

My hope is that the dialogue Kaepernick had hoped to foster won’t be silenced, too.

Fredrick McKissack, Jr. is a communications fellow for the Center for Community Change.

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