“If you don’t love our country, get the f—k out of it,” a man in an Instagram video says as he grabbed a long-nosed lighter and a bottle from his cargo shorts.
He pours a clear liquid in small circles and then ignites it. As the red jersey burned, charred, and melted into the grass, the man yells that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick no longer deserves to play in the NFL and that he should leave the country.
Fan videos of jersey-burning rituals appear to have become increasingly popular since 2010. That year, NBA star LeBron James announced that he would leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat. Some fans in Ohio took to the streets and burned the jerseys of their purportedly beloved star, who grew up only an hour away from where he played every night.
The same happened to Kevin Durant this past summer when he decided to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors; and to MLB veteran Jason Heyward last year when he decided to leave the St. Louis Cardinals and sign with the Chicago Cubs. Then there’s Dwyane Wade, who this past summer left his career-long post as a guard in Miami to play in Chicago; and NFL defensive lineman Julius Peppers when he left the Bears to play for rival Green Bay.
And who can forget Atlanta Falcons legend Michael Vick after he completed his prison sentence for his involvement in a dogfighting ring?
Without ever speaking, both Colin Kaepernick and fans who burned his jersey communicated two very different, yet important messages: the former, that America has a deep-seated problem with anti-black racism and oppression; the latter, that speaking out against said oppression will always be met with violence.
People depend heavily on nonverbal communication. Everything from using your turn signal while driving to Young Thug wearing a dress on his latest album cover are examples of ways we regularly convey information — both simple and complex — without ever speaking.
So when Kaepernick sat on the bench while his teammates stood and saluted the flag during the national anthem, everyone noticed. To not stand (or remove your hat, or place your hand over your heart, or whatever other arbitrary signals of so-called patriotism) carries meaning for everyone, regardless of your opinion about the American flag.
It’s the reason some have championed Kaepernick for speaking out against racism and police brutality, while others have accused him of disrespecting the military as well has his teammates and the country.
Unlike Kaepernick’s protest, the message at the heart of burning his jersey is less evident.
We know what Kaepernick’s sitting on the bench during the singing of the national anthem meant because he told us. But what is the actual message behind burning Colin Kaepernick’s jersey after he took a public stand against what he feels is wide-spread racist policing? What exactly are these particular fans trying to say?
There is an unspoken — but undoubtedly communicated — invocation of a painful history intertwined with videos of white fans burning jerseys of black players. Unmistakably, these jerseys are effigies. Typically, black effigies are strung from trees to simulate a lynching, but signs, telephone poles, and light posts have also supported the literal weight of a dummy, the metaphorical weight of racial hatred and intimidation.
The Ku Klux Klan used effigies, for example, to intimidate and deter prospective black voters in the late 1930s. But frankly, this is not a far-removed nor distant history — people hang black effigies quite frequently.
Like in 2012 when Terry Jones, the pastor notorious for trying to burn almost 3,000 copies of the Quran, hanged and burned an effigy in the likeness of President Obama. In 2012, three black effigies were found hanging from a noose on the University of California’s Berkeley campus. And these aren’t random displays of dislike or contempt. White people have used effigies to intimidate and control black people for decades.
This past August was the sixtieth anniversary of white riots in Mansfield, Texas, in which 12 black students were legally allowed to register at the local high school following the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, but a mob formed and derailed the desegregation attempt by patrolling the registration area with guns. On the flagpole, the mob hanged an effigy of a black student and set it ablaze.
On one of the dummy’s pant legs, they tied a note that read, “This Negro tried to enter a white school. This would be a terrible way to die.” The Mansfield chief of police wrote in the official police report that one woman looked up at the burning black mass and said “it was a shame that wasn’t a real nigger hanging up there instead of just a dummy.”
If the contention is that Kaepernick, in abstaining from this specific cultural ritual, has discarded the symbolic significance for the American flag, the act of publicly burning his jersey must too be considered a ritualized act — and one of unique racial violence.
No one has posted videos burning jerseys of players like Ryan Braun, who was suspended in 2013 for steroid use. No one grabbed the kerosene and matches when someone taped Philadelphia Eagles receiver Riley Cooper using racial slurs at a Kenny Chesney concert—something that many would consider to be just as potentially divisive as anything Kaepernick did.
Neither Pete Rose, nor Roger Clemens, two of the more infamous white men in sports, have ever had their jerseys burned in protest of their behavior. Jerry Sandusky’s repeated sexual assault of children hurled Penn State into a national scandal and implicated head coach and college football icon Joe Paterno. No one flooded the streets burning Nittany Lions memorabilia to protest violent pedophilia.
Video does exist of white fans burning jerseys of some white athletes. But surely we cannot compare a Giants fan burning an Eli Manning jersey because of a bad game to three men literally shooting at a burning replica Kevin Durant jersey after he decided to change teams.
It is also worth noting that burning a jersey goes beyond voicing displeasure or contempt for that person. These videos don’t depict people selling their jerseys online, or putting them in the trashcan, or even cutting them to shreds. There is something more visceral, more final about dousing something in lighter fluid and watching it be completely consumed by flames, until it’s nothing at all.
The message is more than you no longer want this person on your team or that person is of bad moral character. The fans in Atlanta who burned Vick’s jersey purchased new ones specifically to set on fire. This is about an expression of control, of dominance, and of violence — the very same violence the KKK used to intimidate and control.
If the message behind burning an effigy of someone is not that you wish or intend to harm, then what exactly are we to read from burned clothing? If the contention is that Colin Kaepernick attacked the meaning behind the American flag, and that it’s allegedly what is so shameful, we must all be honest in the fact that we allow a kind of racialized violence to persist when we burn the jerseys of black athletes.
With every week that passes, more and more names of black people extrajudicially executed by the police become hashtags and rallying cries. At this point, you are either of the opinion that systemic racism plagues policing and the larger criminal justice system, or you aren’t. But there is nothing Colin Kaepernick can say (or not say) to sway those who belong in the latter camp.
When protests involve blocking highways, people angrily (and sometimes violently) respond. When protests involve interrupting presidential candidates at rallies, the responses range from patronizing finger-wagging to, again, more violence.
Kaepernick detractors who allege that they are merely concerned with his mode of communication would be more honest in saying they disagree with the content of his message (like University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh did before recanting and apologizing). So too is the message behind burning effigies of black athletes more concerning than the actual destruction of clothing.
If we are to interpret Kaepernick’s demonstration — something he believes is right in the face of overwhelming backlash — as un-American, then what should we consider about its violent response?
What, then, is saluting the burning effigy of a black man as the very national anthem he claims is oppressive blares in the background?