We have made protest so dirty it is impossible to find a universally accepted form of protest. Camping out in public parks destroys the environment the protesters whine about. Marching in the streets disrupts people’s lives too much for anyone to take your side. Petitions never go anywhere. Celebrities and actors are told to stay in their lane. Taking a knee during a football game spits on the memories of soldiers.
Despite it being a fundamental right in a democracy to show discontent, to be a protester is to be the dirty image of futile idealism, or a spoiled snowflake. The act of protesting loses the message that something’s deeply wrong.
How many topics can you think of where that’s been the case? Anything Aboriginal issue? Climate change? Black Lives Matter? Even Charlottesville. They are all worthy of our understanding but dismissed because it’s a question of who is doing the protesting rather than what their message is or what their concerns are. It is through this listening that we know how to fix the root issues.
There’s also people who dismiss out of hand any kind of protest or demonstration because it’s inconvenienced them in some small, minor way. Then when someone brings up the topic that protest was speaking out about, the first impulse is to the negative feelings of being annoyed.
It’s a bit like having your obnoxious redneck family tell you about the positives of trophy hunting, so immediately when you hear “trophy hunting” you overlook the pro’s of the argument because your negative response to your ignorant, Trump-voting Montana family biases you. Even though they might have a point.
Colin Kaepernick. Him and fellow 49ers Eric Reid discussed with retired Green Beret Nate Boyer what kind of protest the veteran would think is acceptable that wouldn’t offend the memory of soldiers who fought and died. They compromised on half-kneeling. Half-kneeling was like a flag at half-mast. A retired Green Beret thought that was respectful.
In theory it was.
The fact is, there is no universally accepted form of protest that won’t upset someone because protests are meant to upset. They’re meant to upset the people with power who can change things, and to shake the public out of whatever apathy and ignorance by showing them that shit’s real, and in theory they’d learn what the message is and become woke or whatever and be in favour of the protest’s agenda.
In theory anyway. By the looks of the public opinion polls, it’s arguable the protests are having that effect at all.
There are certainly veterans in support of Kaepernick’s protest and resent being used as props by politicians and people who never sacrificed, people presuming to know what veterans care about as though veterans are a singular hive mind all of the same opinion. Well over 90% of Americans won’t know what war is like but they’ll be damned if they won’t find something to be outraged by like a lapel pin or bumper sticker.
“We got soldiers dying, and we got millionaires protesting our flag before they play a game,” [Lenny] Miller said. “I have a major problem with that.”
Did we prime regular people to make these quick, stupid ad-hominem associations? Did we do enough to teach people to respect protesting as a last resort of the frustrated, a call to attention to pain in the body politic, an unhealthy arrangement that deserves address even if the underlying causes don’t match what the protesters think is the cause?
No, we certainly didn’t do enough.
In Kaepernick’s case it’s simple, racist math. Black athletes make up over 70% of the NFL rosters but the NFL fanbase is 83% white and 64% male. Could we reasonably expect those fans to be sympathetic to learning about institutional and systemic racism? Even without the opposing forces putting out propaganda, it’s hard to say yes.
America also has an uneasy history about black people taking a stand. Black athletes can raise money for Africa, or literacy for inner cities, but racism? Police brutality? Ending wars?
Even Martin Luther King Jr., who went through hell to fight against racism was considered to have gone “too far” protesting the war in Vietnam and fighting for economic equality. He was told to stay in his lane.
There’s a long history of people with visibility, of celebrities, speaking out on issues they are not known for. Obviously, actors can have opinions too but the content and veracity of their opinions is like anybody else’s: it has to stand to scrutiny.
Neither Leonaro DiCaprio nor Charlie Sheen should be automatically disqualified for having an opinion on climate change or 9/11 because they are actors. But either of their opinions can and should be discredited if their formulation proves batshit.
But most of the time, people get nasty if you’re seen as straying from the script you’re most associated with. The president of the police union in Cleveland said after one protest “It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law. They should stick to what they know best on the field.”
Put together, it’s a way to pigeon-hole the protest and bury the lead. But it’s extremely potent.
For African-Americans, the potency is beyond the normal dismissal white celebrities face. Most Americans think Islam is the biggest terrorist threat when right-wing extremism and white-on-everyone-else terrorist acts are far likelier and higher in number. Speaking out as a black person against white racism, or war, or inequality is opening yourself up to any number of ugly reprisals.
- Take Chris Rock (@3:43) talking about racism and terrorism: “Did Al Qaeda blow up the building in Oklahoma? No. Did Al Qaeda put anthrax in your mail? No. Did Al Qaeda drag James Byrd down the street until his eyeballs popped out his fucking head? No. I ain’t scared of Al Qaeda, I’m scared of Al Cracka.”
- Or Dave Chappelle talking about the Dixie Chicks and protesting the war, “I almost protested the war in the beginning. Almost. Until I saw what happened to them Dixie Chicks I said ‘Fuck. That.’ If they do that to three white women they will tear my black ass to pieces.”
- Muhammad Ali famously went to prison for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War.
- Both Tommy Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the 1968 Summer Olympics for what people called a “Black Power Salute”. In their minds it was a salute to basic human rights.
- When American gymnast Gabby Douglas didn’t cover her chest during the national anthem at the 2016 Olympics, here was the response:
Get the picture?
Saying the protest is somehow racist when it’s speaking out against racism, or unpatriotic when non-violent protest is a central ingredient in American democracy, or none of their business when their celebrity gives perfect opportunity to make it their business, is just a couple of ways which we are being primed to ignore the message of protests.
It’s how we throw the baby out with the bathwater.
At the beginning of Kaepernick’s protest he stated, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” [until] “there’s significant change, and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
Consider this side of it too, that if athletes protested by striking, as in stopped playing altogether, tens of billions of dollars in business would be disrupted, and more importantly, disrupt how people spend their time. This is why athletes protesting actually makes sense on the face of it. Entertainment takes up such a very large part of North Americans’ lives that they roughly spend 5 and half hours a day in front of a screen. 64% of Americans watch NFL, with six in ten saying they spend roughly five hours a week watching it.
In this light, the dismissal of the protests are instrumental: they preserve the interests of those who benefit by the status quo, in this case the NFL, its advertisers, and the rigid beliefs held by millions of white male Americans about what their country does and is about.
Can you imagine if NHL players sat out games until real commitments and meaningful progress was made with First Nations and Aboriginal peoples? Can you imagine if NBA players went on strike until mandatory minimum sentences in the War on Drugs were repealed?
There’s an episode of the TV cartoon and comic The Boondocks, and it had MLK, Jr. survive his assassination and wake up from a coma. After a stirring speech about the trivialities of modern black pop culture, MLK, Jr. roused African-Americans into action. There was protesting outside the White House, and black members of the NBA sat out games until troops were withdrawn from Iraq.
In theory. In theory, the masses would concern themselves with the message of the protest, but in reality that narrative can be hijacked, ridiculed, compartmentalized and dismissed. In reality there’s no way a militarized police wouldn’t have quashed protests or the media blare out red herrings to distract from the message of the demonstrators.
In theory citizens would have been equipped with critical thinking tools. In reality we never controlled for that variable in our democratic experiment.
You can’t fix what’s broken if your tools are also broken. Our attitude and education towards protests are unhealthy, and we can watch it in real-time on TV, we can watch the baby thrown out with the bathwater, because nowhere were we taught that there is no perfect protest.