THE NFL’S OPPOSITION to protest was, of course, made tangible when Colin Kaepernick, then the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, took a knee to bring awareness to police brutality against minority communities in America. Beginning in August 2016, Kaepernick’s action was supported by a (relatively) small number of other players. Among them were his 49ers teammate Eric Reid; Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos (“I’m against social injustice”);1 Jurrell Casey, Wesley Woodyard, and Jason McCourty of the Tennessee Titans; Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty (Jason’s twin brother) of the New England Patriots; Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs; and the entire player roster and coaching staff of the Seattle Seahawks. Kaepernick’s action, another moment of resistance through stillness (the black body publicly withholding itself in an act of disobedience, the refusal to act in accordance with the demands of the hegemonic order),2 caused considerable controversy, not the least of which was a clearly oppositional stance taken by Goodell and the league office. Then in the final year of his contract with the 49ers, Kaepernick found himself punished for his actions. Despite his obvious talent, including having led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2011, when they lost, narrowly, to the Baltimore Ravens, no team would sign Kaepernick because he was steadfast in his determination to take a knee during the national anthem.
Kaepernick has not played in the NFL since.
Kaepernick, although not mentioned, is the presence that haunts the 2020 NFL players’ ad. Confronted with a nation grappling with systemic racism, Goodell apologized, within some 24 hours, for “not having listened to the players’” previous grievances. The year 2016, and Kaepernick, were clearly on Goodell’s mind. Henceforth, kneeling for the national anthem was permitted. Out of the “canceling,” to use the current terminology, of Kaepernick, and the death of George Floyd, the (constitutional) right to protest police brutality was won.
Chalk up another win for reformism.
Meanwhile, Kaepernick remains unemployed. A powerful catalyst who, much like Muhammad Ali in 1967 when he refused the draft, brought attention to an issue that, in truth, has for too long been an unarguable fact of black life in America.
The biracial Colin Kaepernick, born to a white mother (Heidi Russo) and an African American father (who separated from his mother before Kaepernick was born), was adopted and raised by white parents, Rick and Teresa Kaepernick. Born in, as historical irony would have it, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Kaepernick was raised in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, before his family moved to California. Kaepernick excelled at baseball, basketball, and football in Turlock, CA.
In our moment, all things involving police brutality and the black athlete lead back to Colin Kaepernick. But history had one more coincidence to offer. George Hill’s decision came about forty-eight hours before the fifty-seventh anniversary of the March on Washington. On that monumental occasion in August 1963, in that “I Have A Dream” address, Martin Luther King Jr. twice makes mention of excessive police force unjustly trained on black bodies. He condemns those who make the “Negro” a “victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” leaving black bodies “staggered by the winds of police brutality.”3
Martin Luther King’s dream is Colin Kaepernick’s dream is George Hill’s dream. A dream now, at the very least, thrice unrealized; a dream crushed by police batons, attacked by Bull Connor’s dogs, killed by a policeman’s unmovable knee, maimed by seven bullets. And, because of it, turmoil will ensue: “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”4 For a moment the epicenter of that “whirlwind” was Kenosha, Wisconsin, as it was in Minneapolis three short months prior. We can only guess where it will be headquartered next.
The question, however, remains: How profoundly must the “foundations of our nation” be shaken, how many more black lives must be sacrificed to police brutality, how much more black, Latino, native American, Asian, and yes, white, poverty must be experienced, how many more times must black and minority lives be shown to be most vulnerable to health crises, Covid-19 being merely the latest iteration of this phenomenon, before the “bright day of justice emerges”? When is enough truly, and finally, Enough? Metonymically, Danny Green and Amir Coffey would like to know. How much more? How many more, Zubica, Mason, and Wannamaker would like to know? Can “Enough” be quantified? And, if so, can it be done with any arithmetical precision? What will the final tally be?
Enough as that moment when the questions that the black athlete provokes demands such a reckoning that the constitutive limits of the players’ struggle is apprehended as that juncture where the black athlete must reach outside of itself to find an answer. Only then can what is at stake be fully addressed. It is not enough to campaign for reform. It is only, paradoxically, through a complete reorganization of society that the black athlete—that all athletes—is released into the freedom to simply play. When it will no longer be necessary for a black athlete to save us.
To declare, then, that only a black athlete can save us now, is to speak out of firm historical grounding. It is also, however, to recognize how the various discourses that constitute the black radical tradition reinforce, coincide with, and support each other. And sometimes, it is hoped, contradict each other to the point of superannuation. It is to draw a line, sometimes direct, but more often jagged and winding, that links a historic speech (King) with a determination to withhold black labor (Hill). It is to understand that black eloquence, black anger, and black silence belong, no matter their distinction, to the same political—and, yes, ethical—register. No matter that he may forswear it, and we have no reason to believe he would, George Hill, like Martin Luther King, dreams of what is not. An America that can live, in good faith, in good conscience, if you insist, with itself. Of what must be. Justice. Of what must not be. Continuing injustice. Police brutality.
Colin Kaepernick took a knee and then, it turns out, it was another knee—of an entirely more violent nature—that made the NFL commissioner to publicly speak to the reality of police brutality against black bodies. Kaepernick’s knee found its fatal corollary in Derek Chauvin’s knee. Kaepernick’s (taking a) knee inflicted no physical harm on anyone. Chauvin’s killed a black man. Kaepernick’s (taking a knee) provoked outrage amongst white nationalists, white “patriots” (the American national anthem is sacred, stand for it or be condemned; condemned as what exactly one is, which is probably wise not to probe too deeply), a racist white president (Trump), and all their echo chambers in the right-wing media. For at least a moment, Chauvin’s knee promised to bring, if not a nation, then all those with the potential to be (right) thinking human beings—that is, those with even a modicum of decency and the smallest appetite for justice—to its senses. The death effected by Chauvin’s knee, which has never been joined in conversation to Kaepernick’s, opened the door—briefly, just wedging the door ajar ever so slightly—to the possibility of a nation willing to take up the work of racial reckoning.
Taking a Knee, Keeping a Knee on a Black Man’s Neck
Amidst all the violence, amidst the myriad protests that wracked and continue to wrack, this nation, Kaepernick maintained a steadfast silence. No one would identify Kaepernick as an oracle. There was no need to. What Kaepernick took a knee for would not be recognized, by a large swathe of white America, for what it is: the fundamental “common sense” of the America political—the right to peaceful protest.
The logic that governs white America’s relationship to the black body is always, a priori, based on the presumption of black criminality. Contained within that logic, as we well know, is the all-too accepted “need” for excessive police force in relation to the black body (no-knock warrants, tasing, all the force it takes to subdue the black body, and, of course, the use of deadly force). This is the path that leads to black death and the need for large-scale black incarceration.
Kaepernick’s was a historically informed, politically critical, taking of the knee. The NFL, the Trump White House, the rabid white nationalists in the conservative media, white Republicans, and their fellow-travelers all across America (I do not doubt that more than a few Democrats were similarly ill-disposed to Kaepernick’s protest), glued to their TV screens on Sunday to watch the NFL, declared themselves virulently opposed to taking a knee.
Derek Chauvin’s knee, on the other hand, has thrown the entire nation into a cataclysm of . . . violence, protests, utopian occupation (Seattle), counterprotests (Portland) . . . with more in the offing. America, the Land of, the Land with, a Wounded Knee. (A nation Wounded, as in Percival Everett’s novel of the same name; a nation where, in the white West, not far from Laramie, Wyoming, an indigenous ranch owner finds “Red Nigger”5 written in the snow, written with the blood of his dead cattle. The only person with whom the indigenous rancher can share the inscription with is his black neighbor.) One man’s kneeling is another man’s deadly force. A white man’s knee is a black man’s death. A black man’s kneeling on an NFL sideline prefigures a black man’s death by kneeling by a white police officer on a black man’s neck.