Why Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest is catching on
IT BEGAN very quietly. During the customary playing of the American national anthem at a pre-season football game in August, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down. Nobody paid any attention. He did it again several days later. When he sat down for the third game in a row—this time more recognisable in his team strip—he was spotted by an eagle-eyed journalist, who tweeted a photo. Two days later Mr Kaepernick, who has a white mother and an African-American father, told the media that he was protesting at police brutality against people of colour. The most pertinent question put to him by journalists was why he was the only player who had made such a gesture. He suggested that others were scared of losing their jobs, missing out on sponsorship deals or being treated differently. Mr Kaepernick's assumption that he would be protesting alone has since been proved wrong.
Since he explained his motivation, he has been joined by teammates, rivals and other athletes. A women's soccer player, Megan Rapinoe, who is white, knelt down during the anthem before her team's match. The first Sunday of the NFL season coincided with the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. In spite of the heightened emotions of the day (and the greater risk of being labelled unpatriotic), players across the country knelt down, linked arms or raised fists during the anthem. Mr Kaepernick's jersey became the biggest seller at the NFL online store. Predictably, the protest has drawn both praise and criticism. The police union responsible for law enforcement at the 49ers' home games has said Mr Kaepernick "threatened our harmonious working relationship" with the team and proposed a boycott. The president, Barack Obama, suggested the quarterback was merely "exercising his constitutional right".
It is easy to understand why Mr Kaepernick expected to be protesting alone. But his gesture was a clever, thoughtful one. After answering a letter from Nate Boyer, a former football player and a green beret, Mr Kaepernick switched from sitting to resting on one knee, explaining that he did not want to show any disrespect to members of the armed forces. It also represents an important visual difference. Sitting down can look like sulking; kneeling appears contemplative. According to Yahoo Sports, he has spoken to athletes involved in charity work and civil-rights activists in order to keep the protest going. Combined with an announcement that he would give the first million dollars of his 2016 salary to community groups, this has made it easier for others to follow, as has the support of the 49ers. There is also a clear historical precedent. In 1968 Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medallists in the 200m at the Mexico City Olympics, stood on the podium and raised black-gloved fists to show their opposition to racial segregation in America and in South Africa. The International Olympic Association threw them out of the games and they were widely criticised at home.
A Reuters poll showed that a majority of Americans disagreed with Mr Kaepernick's protest and considered it unpatriotic. However, a similar majority felt that the constitution permitted him the right to demonstrate. The fact that public opinion remains divided—and because political leaders, such as Ted Cruz, a failed Republican presidential candidate, believe that the quarterback is insulting "our flag, our nation, our heroes"—shows the value of his protest. If the movement (as that is what it is becoming) poses any danger to Mr Kaepernick, it is that America is debating a well-off athlete's posture on the sidelines of a football pitch, rather than the black lives lost in encounters with law enforcement. An undemonstrative gesture has become the central focus.