Against An Authoritarian America: Standing Up For Kaepernick’s Right to Sit Down

“When the Horst Wessel Song was sung, as a democrat of long standing I naturally did not raise my arm. The woman was standing next to me. She sang along with gusto and raised her hand high. She was the one who reported me. I then had to go and explain myself to District Administrator Rothmund. And he said to me, ‘What did you do?’ I said, ‘I didn’t do anything at all.’ Then he said, ‘That’s just it! Times have changed. You have to raise your hand now.’”

–  An eye-witness account (excerpt), after 1945. Topographie des Terrors museum, Berlin.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has invited a storm of controversy upon himself in the past few weeks: in preseason games against both the Green Bay Packers and the San Diego Chargers, Kaepernick – later joined by teammate Eric Reid as well as US soccer star Megan Rapinoe – refused to stand for the national anthem in a statement of silent protest against racial injustice, police brutality, and the oppression of black people and people of color in America.

Public backlash to Kaepernick’s actions came down swiftly, predictably nasty, disgusted, and infuriated. Anonymous NFL executives have branded Kaepernick a “traitor,” with one stating, “I don’t want him anywhere near my team.” “Fuck that guy,” said another, stating he would rather resign than sign Kaepernick. In an article by Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report, the officials said that Kaepernick was “as disliked among the league as Rae Carruth, the former Panthers player who was found guilty of conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend.” (You read that right – to NFL executives, not standing up for the anthem is on par, without question, with attempted murder.) Right wing sports reporters have questioned if Kaepernick, who is mixed-race, is “really black.” He’s been accused of breaking federal law by a conservative non-profit. Sarah Palin has advocated violence against him, calling him an “ungrateful punk,” and presidential candidate Donald Trump has urged Kaepernick to “find a country that works better for him.” A Twitter user has asked for him to be “sent as a gift to ISIS,” an opinion that has not been isolated on the Twittersphere. The Santa Clara Police Officers’ Association threatened to stop offering security at the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, and asked the 49ers to discipline Kaepernick.

While I saw the backlash and vitriol unfold online, I was reminded of the excerpt, quoted above, of patriotic performance in Nazi Germany that I had seen in the Topographie des Terrors museum in Berlin, a World War II museum that struggled to answer the questions of how, and why something like the Holocaust could happen among a democratic population. I had taken a picture of it and posted it to my Instagram then – millennial scrapbooking – and captioned it “obedience is terrifying.”

I am not trying to suggest that 21st century America is mid 20th century Germany, and I understand that Holocaust comparisons are tired, occasionally offensive or hyperbolic, and overdone. Yet there is something stressful about the fact that this issue is blowing up social media, with cries of at times violent, compulsory patriotism that smells rankly like the compulsory patriotism of dictatorial governments, right at the cusp of an election where one candidate shows fascist, authoritarian tendencies deeply rooted in sexism and racism.  We face the world right now at a crossroads: right wing authoritarianism is on the rise throughout the Western world, with openly fascist, neo-Nazi parties winning significant victories in Europe, and Hungary literally building a wall. We face a world where there is a choice between rejecting white supremacy, police brutality, the hetero-patriarchy, the suppression of protest movements and free speech, or succumbing to it.

All of this is to say that now, more than ever, “liberal” America faces the question of the kind of country it is going to be as it is mired in an election and a political revolution that grapple with the country’s complicated and contradictory history of racism, liberalism, violence, acceptance, multiculturalism, and democracy. The issue extends far beyond Kaepernick. As American soccer star Megan Rapinoe – who kneeled during the national anthem on Sunday in solidarity with Kaepernick – has reminded us, now more than ever it is important that white people stand in support with people of color on issues of racial justice and protest. Rapinoe pointed out that the issue also struck her as a gay American, saying “I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties.” Indeed, the issues of racial justice Kaepernick is protesting intersect heavily with matters of gender, sexuality, and class, making it important for all of us who care about any or all of those issues to stand with him.

Years ago, in 1989, Justice Kennedy, in a case called Texas v. Johnson, articulated with a certain pain, “It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt,” thus protecting Gregory Lee Johnson’s act of flag burning in protest of Ronald Regan at the RNC as symbolic speech. Meanwhile, there stand a litany of either outright authoritarian or hypocritical democratic regimes that arrest and punish people for insulting or desecrating the flag or the anthem, or not standing up during the national anthem. Anybody who remotely cares about the sort of unity, representation, and civil rights and liberties the American flag and anthem represent must care about, and protect, the ability to challenge them.

It is not good enough in this political climate to spout out the “I support your message, not your methods” crap in response to Kaepernick’s urgent and timely protest to systemic racism. Liberal America cannot stand by as Kaepernick is faced with vitriol and violence and be what Martin Luther King denigrated as,

the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

While it might sound dramatic to say we face a crossroads between McCarthy’s America or MLK’s, and while an NFL player might not be the center of a difficult question of political identity, I think where we stand on the issue of Kaepernick is an important reflection of what we stand for. Feminists, queer people, people of color, minorities, White liberals, and Americans alike – we must be accepting, celebratory even, of all methods of protest, and of the spirit of protest, no matter what the method, and stand for those bold enough to sit down against the status quo.

Header image via Football Schedule Flickr


Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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