Kaepernick Embodies Free Speech

Artwork by Eli Canter: “Colin Kaepernick’s protests have polarized the country”

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s recent protest against excessive use of force by law enforcement has ignited an intense wave of emotion throughout the nation. Since late August, Kaepernick has been kneeling during the national anthem as a protest of police brutality.

His unavoidably visible objection in the face of a national televised audience has mobilized his many defenders, as well as his critics. He has initiated a debate over everything from what our flag means to the role of celebrities in political protest, but not the one issue he originally wanted to bring attention to: police brutality.

The fact of the matter is that there are many valid criticisms of Kaepernick’s protest, and just as many valid praises. What’s more disturbing, however, is the widespread disregard of the subject of his protest by critics, who would rather tune out the uncomfortable realities of the death of unarmed citizens at the hands of officers sworn to protect and serve. They denounce him as too privileged, or too “white” to take a stand against oppression.

Conservative critic Tomi Lahren summed up much of the opposition: “I’ve got loved ones overseas right now fighting for your right to sit on a bench and [expletive] and moan about your perceived oppression while making $19 million a year to throw a ball, so show a little respect.” As someone with a brother in the United States Navy, I can understand the heady appeal of Ms. Lahren’s seemingly patriotic denunciation. But the issue is far more complex and insidious than the broad brushstrokes her words paint it as.

What Lahren fails to to understand, or at least pretends not to, is the reality of protest and visibility in America. Nowhere in Kaepernick’s several statements on the issue has he claimed to be opressed. The people affected by the issue Kaepernick is speaking on have been protesting for generations only to be ignored and dismissed. When impoverished people of color protest against injustice, they’re labelled as “angry”, “bitter” or “lawless”. And if the protests of the last few years tell us anything, it’s that we have no problem washing our hands and continuing our inaction after national interest has moved on. In a culture that gives seemingly infinite attention to celebrities, it only makes sense to use it as a platform to speak for those whose voices aren’t heard.

When the affected communities speak out, we are happy to marginalize, discount and blame them. When the visible speak out in the name of justice, we call them out of touch and seeking attention. It seems that white America feels much more comfortable decrying the messengers, instead of engaging the message. If you want to debate about the substance of Kaepernick’s protest, go ahead. But don’t disrespect the cause of free speech and political discourse that countless Americans have fought and died for.

By Peter Simpson

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