Taking a Knee Is Not About Abstract Unity but Racial Justice

st night before the start of Monday Night Football, the entire Dallas Cowboys team, led by team owner and Trump donor Jerry Jones, took a knee and then quickly rose before the National Anthem.

Afterwards, Jones said:

Our players wanted to make a statement about unity and we wanted to make a statement about equality. They were very much aware that statement, when made or when attempted to be made in and a part of the recognition of our flag, cannot only lead to criticism but also controversy. It was real easy for everybody in our organization to see that the message of unity, the message of equality was getting, if you will, pushed aside or diminished by the controversy. We even had the circumstances that it was being made into a controversy.

This incomprehensible word salad aside, there is something valuable, something we should not casually dismiss, about a how of “unity” from people in the NFL in the face of Donald Trump’s grotesque bullying and transparent racism. But Jones’s Hallmark-card blather as well as the NFL’s incoherent “unity” commercial that aired during the Sunday-night game are a stark reminder that these league-backed protests had nothing to do with the original intent of anthem protests.
People like Jerry Jones and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and all the owners, linking arms with their players, are as complicit in obscuring the actual meaning of taking a knee as Donald Trump himself. It’s a case of competing narcissisms. We absolutely cannot allow this debate to become one of “unity” vs. “the flag” or a liberal brand of bumper-sticker patriotism (“Protest Is Patriotic”) vs. the Trumpian brand (“Stand or Die!”).
In contrast to these vulgar Caligulas, we have the proud silence of Colin Kaepernick: the person who first took that knee, whose continual unemployment stands as a stark reminder of the kinds of ideas too dangerous for the NFL to touch—ideas that Trump is too racist to engage in.

One is reminded of the chant that always rises during Pride marches, “Stonewall was a riot.” This celebratory, now-corporatized parade started with LGBTQ people, led by trans women, standing up to police violence. The roots of “taking a knee” are, of course, quite similar. While Kaepernick is silent, his teammate on last year’s 49ers, Eric Reid, wrote a tremendous op-ed for The New York Times about why he chose to take that knee with his quarterback. The opening paragraph cuts through all the obfuscation and cooptation we’ve seen and makes it devastatingly plain:

In early 2016, I began paying attention to reports about the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police. The posts on social media deeply disturbed me, but one in particular brought me to tears: the killing of Alton Sterling in my hometown Baton Rouge, La. This could have happened to any of my family members who still live in the area. I felt furious, hurt and hopeless. I wanted to do something, but didn’t know what or how to do it.
This is what it’s about. It started because the killings of people like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last summer were intolerable for anyone with a conscience. Protesting during the anthem was about highlighting that gap between what we are told the flag represents and the lived experience of too many people. Or as Kaepernick himself said a year ago, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
Michael Bennett of the Seahawks continued these protests in the NFL preseason less because Kaepernick is his friend than because he was touched by the case of Charleena Lyles, a black woman in Seattle, killed by police in her home, in front of her children.
These motivations cannot be forgotten. We run the risk of also erasing Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Charleena Lyles, and everyone who has been killed by police and did not receive even a modicum of justice.
To see someone like former NFL player Ray Lewis take not one knee but two knees during the anthem, after he has spent the last year attacking Colin Kaepernick and all players protesting police brutality, serves less to raise consciousness than to provoke amnesia.
I reached out to two people whose voices on this have more legitimacy than a boardroom of NFL owners. The first is Ameer Loggins, the lecture organizer for Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camps, about whether he shared these concerns. Before the Cowboys and Jerry Jones made their gesture, he wrote to me:

My fear is that the physical act of “taking a knee” will become so pop culturally pervasive, so available for ubiquitous usage that it will be stripped from its original spirit. We have a situation where those ostracizing the original players who knowingly were putting their careers on the line for the sake of social justice by taking a knee to bring awareness to systemic oppression, and the police killing unarmed Black folks with impunity, are now taking a knee as a PR stunt. They are transforming a pure protest into poisonous posturing. The shit is wack.

Then I asked Chris Petrella, who works with Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp to develop political-education curricula. He said:

I am deeply concerned that the original political thrust of #TakeAKnee is being both diluted and recast through the shallow, simple, and ahistorical vocabulary of “unity.” This kind of political shift, however, is far from surprising. History has proven that white supremacy has a way of reframing the terrain of political debate—changing the goalposts, if you will, and policing the parameters of acceptable discourse when communities of color pose threats to its persistence. My sincere hope is that folks in the movement refuse to cede the pointed and historical language of police violence, institutional racism, and white supremacy. To paraphrase James Baldwin, we white folks are trapped in a history we don’t understand. Calling for unity flattens history and makes a mockery out of the passage of time. Unity does not heal; truth does. If we’re after truth and justice, then knowing our history might be a good place to start.

It is so important for us to draw strength and inspiration from the people throughout the sports world standing up to Trump. But inside the movement, we do need to not be silent as we link arms. We need to turn to those alongside us and say the names of those killed by police. We need to say that unity matters, but not unity with those who would blackball Colin Kaepernick. We can never forget that this is a movement for those who, because of racism and state violence, can no longer speak for themselves.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com