Within every movement, there are progressive upswings and disappointing downsides. Often the former can easily deter the latter. Unfortunately, when it comes to racial justice movements — the gravitational pull of white supremacy creates an unfair balance that allows no room for setbacks to linger.
Such a gravitational pull was thrown this weekend by Donald Trump, the man who currently occupies the American presidency, who decided to say at a rally: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired. He’s fired!”
It’s obvious that NFL player Colin Kaepernick was the that “son of a bitch” Trump was directly referring to after the athlete led a year-long movement detesting the National Anthem as a way to raise awareness on racial injustice and police brutality impacting Black and brown people. As several athletes took a knee this past Sunday in solidarity, I couldn’t help but observe the detractors on social media who centered Trump as the cause for their protest. White liberals and political pundits especially turned this act of Black defiance to the system into an “all voices matter” co-opt to the movement. While conversations around free speech is definitely important, Kaepernick didn’t take a knee to defend first amendment rights. He did it to stand up for Black people and their rights that so often get infringed upon in this country.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media on Aug. 26, 2016, the first time he had took a knee in protest. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Since that bold declaration, Kaepernick has faced the enduring consequences for his bravery: death threats, calls to boycott him from the league, and now a very public blackballing as he’s a free agent who has yet to be signed by anyone yet.
I was never that much of an NFL fan to begin with (the league’s tone-deafness to domestic violence, its faulty account for CTE in athletic aggression), but supported the calls to boycott the NFL following Kaepernick’s blackballing. For any Black person to be ousted from their occupation as a result of standing up for other Black people should signal an automatic rejection of that employer. Consequently, NFL program ratings have dipped as the boycott has proven to hurt the league where it should. But after Trump’s antics, it seems as though he is once again front-and-center of an issue nobody asked him to partake in. Some bandwagon supporters are actually asking folks to watch the NFL to avenge Trump while also invoking #TakeTheKnee in their protest.
Sigh, this is why we can’t have nice things.
For anyone who is talking about this movement and not centering Blackness and/or racial justice, you’ve missed the point. Black athletes and allies who have taken a knee and spoken out are detesting more than just free speech rights, but Black and brown folks who are often marginalized within society. To whitewash this narrative with broad messages of “free speech for all,” “Resist,” or “make Trump mad” plays into the the kind of erasure and oppression Kaepernick and many others are rising up against.
Black lives mattered to Kaepernick and many others before Trump got elected, and will continue to after his exit from the White House. I rather we focus more about dismantling systems of white supremacy that perpetuates the injustice being protested about more than reacting to another one of Trump’s antics. There’s a progressive upswing happening in this movement that we can’t afford to lose momentum.
Ernest Owens is the Editor of Philadelphia magazine’s G Philly. He has written for USA Today, NBC News, BET, HuffPost and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and ernestowens.com.