Going Down in History

Going Down in History

FROM THE LEFT SIDE OF THE BALCONY | Kaepernick effectively quarterbacks an antiracism movement.

When San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand for the national anthem, it appeared to be a brave but futile protest against racism and police brutality. The professional sports machine started a verbal lynching.

He was called unpatriotic and also a traitor. Right-wing sports commentators joined the Santa Clara Police Officer’s Association calling for immediate disciplinary action. It appeared that Kaepernick would go down in history with Tommie Smith and John Carlos—the two African-American champions who raised their fists in a black power salute during the 1968 Olympics—as an athlete who sacrificed his career for his principles.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the gallows. Other 49ers joined the protest. Dozens of football players and other professional athletes nationwide knelt during the national anthem or raised the black power fist. High school sports teams followed suit.

Kaepernick’s protest, like the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that inspired it, sparked a national movement, and Kaepernick made the cover of Time magazine. His protest shook up the culture of professional sports.

Team owners pretend they provide politics-free entertainment for all Americans. Owners make billions of dollars by encouraging raucous support for their teams and endless streams of sports trivia. They profit from seat sales, TV rights, and memorabilia. High-quality football jerseys retail for $295.

But the culture of corporate sports is far from politics free. In fact, jingoism is the norm. Saluting the flag and playing the national anthem are assumed to be expressions of patriotism. Halftime events in “support of our troops” translate as support for whatever aggressive imperial war is being waged at the moment.

But this false patriotism isn’t just spontaneous. From 2011 to 2014, the Department of Defense gave $6.8 million to football and other sports teams to put on patriotic ceremonies, according to a 2015 U.S. Senate report. The DOD hoped the events would increase recruitment to the armed forces.

So the initial reaction of NFL owners was to oppose Kaepernick’s protest. But his teammates supported his right to free speech, protests spread nationwide, and Kaepernick’s jersey (No. 7) became the top seller among fans around the country. Kaepernick pledged a $1 million donation from his share of the jersey sales to charities fighting racism.

The owners recalibrated.

Jed York, owner of the 49ers, said he respected Kaepernick’s decision to protest and donated his own $1 million to two local foundations. Other team owners, who would normally have blasted Kaepernick, remained silent.

Popular support for Kaepernick reflects a change in the country’s political culture, said Ustadi Kadiri, a veteran community activist living in East Oakland.

Police and those in power “used to be able to get away with stuff,” he told me in an interview. “Now Twitter and Facebook give you instant response. Because of him standing up and Black Lives Matter, people don’t have to let people walk on them.”

Kaepernick gained support among many people of color and progressives when he said he didn’t want “to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

But such sentiment raised the hackles of conservatives, such as New York Times columnist David Brooks. He argues that the flag and national anthem are part of what holds America together.

“When we sing the national anthem, we are not commenting on the state of America,” he wrote. “. . . We’re expressing gratitude to our ancestors and what they left us.”

In reality, many people of color aren’t so grateful for what someone else’s ancestors left them. That includes “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its author Francis Scott Key.

The Kaepernick controversy has shed light once again on the jingoism and racism contained in the anthem itself. Francis Scott Key wrote the anthem during the War of 1812, when the United States invaded Canada in an effort to expand its territory at the expense of the British Empire. In 1814 the British captured Washington, D.C., and set fire to the White House and Capitol, among other government buildings. The anthem is an ode to war, albeit a war that the United States lost big time.

The British promised black slaves freedom if they revolted against the United States. Francis Scott Key was a supporter of slavery who considered Africans to be inferior. Just weeks before he wrote the poem that would later become the national anthem, he lost a battle to the Colonial Marines, former black slaves who had joined the British Army. Key considered slaves seeking freedom to be traitors. In the third stanza, he wrote:

Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Of course the “land of the free and home of the brave” didn’t include black slaves and Native Americans. The current Black Lives Matter protests reflect that long history of racial oppression in the United States. Kaepernick’s protest hit the same nerve.

Instead of corporate culture crushing a brave dissident, we see the beginnings of a powerful people’s culture fighting back.

Community activist Kadiri said young people are coming together as seen in street protests and support for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party primaries.

“It doesn’t matter whether Hilary or Trump wins,” he said. “The U.S. is a powder keg right now.”

In October, Kaepernick regained his job as the 49ers first-string quarterback. I hope he plays well, but either way, he’s going down in history.


The Salesman, the latest film from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, proves that you can make a gripping crime drama without gruff cops or car chases. The director’s previous films include About Elly and A Separation, which won best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Oscars.

The Salesman cleverly interweaves the story of a theater company producing Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman in Tehran with the real life tragedy of a woman attacked in her apartment. The tension builds as the woman and her husband disagree on what to do. Farhadi holds up a mirror to ask each of us how we would react to extraordinary events impacting ordinary people.

The Salesman won best screenplay and best actor at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It played at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October and opens in Bay Area theaters Jan. 13.

Oakland journalist Reese Erlich writes this arts and culture column every month. Follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich, on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/reese.erlich) or contact him by email, ReeseErlich2@hotmail.com

Faces of the East Bay