Today, in our continuing series on social justice issues, we feature two pieces that deal with protest and how it is talked about within a society. In “Focus,” Chetan Tiwari writes about Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the national anthem at NFL games, and how our discussions about this veer away from the topic of police brutality to patriotism and other “weapons of mass distraction.” In “A Cautionary Tale,” Sandell Morse shares her experience visiting Catalan during the National Strike, held to protest police brutality, Finding that civility prevails in the discussions she heard about this charged topic, Morse worries that the United States, with its current less-than-civilized approach to political discourse, may become “a cautionary tale” for the Catalonians
by Chetan Tiwari
On September 1, 2016, before an NFL pre-season game, everyone except Colin Kaepernick stood for the “Star Spangled Banner.” Instead, Kaepernick took a knee. Kaepernick could no longer stand for the national anthem of a nation that did not treat people of color equally. Colin’s protest cost him his career. He has been forced out of the NFL.
NFL owners have already ended Colin’s career as a pro quarterback and now they seek to silence his message of racial inequality and police misconduct. Instead of talking about racial equality the owners talk about patriotism and being “grateful.” They bury Colin’s message in a heap of twitter tirades and empty gestures on NFL sidelines.
In an attempt to silence them, Trump argued that any “son of a bitch” that kneeled during the anthem should be fired. Trump hit all the right buttons, distracting everyone from the issue at hand and putting the focus on himself and the NFL owners. He almost succeeded in silencing the message in its entirety. Owners came together and locked arms with their athletes in a show of unity during the anthem. To be clear, they weren’t unifying with Kaepernick. Few of them even stated that a problem of racial injustice even exists in America. At best, they were unifying against Trump and his attempts to meddle in their business affairs. At worst, they unified in a publicity stunt distracting from Kaepernick’s main point.
Many supporters have fallen victim to these weapons of mass distraction. The entire week after this display the conversation wasn’t about racial equality. It was about respect for the troops or freedom of expression. These side debates are interesting but they are out of context and advocates for equality amongst the races cannot afford to lose sight of the goal.
Kaepernick kneeled because people of color are not treated equally in the eyes of the law. Whenever someone enters a debate of respect for the US Armed Forces or patriotism or anything other than racial equality Colin’s message is muted. It is up to us to keep the message of racial equality in our sights. When someone says Colin is unpatriotic, don’t talk about first amendment rights. Ask them if people of color are created equal, ask them if this nation is a country for all of us, or ask them if they agree with how the spate of police shootings that have occurred against black people in recent years have been addressed. If we keep talking about this issue, the message cannot be ignored.
This method of keeping the discussion on point is exemplified by one of the greatest athletes in American history. In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to step forward when he was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. He couldn’t bring himself to fight an unjust war for a country that denied people of color basic human rights. Ali stated, “I got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” He also questioned, “Why should they ask me and other so-called Negroes to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home to drop bombs on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
The fact that the heavyweight champion of the world stood up to a war premised on the fundamental American ideology of capitalism and “freedom” shook white America to its core, and they attempted to silence him quickly. First they suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his heavyweight title. He was locked out of boxing for forty-two months of his prime fighting years. Financially, he lost millions. Still, Ali focused on his point.
After attempting to destroy his career they attacked his character. People called him unpatriotic and a coward. David Susskind, the American television host called him a “disgrace to his country, [and] his race.” Still Ali brought the discussion back to the main point saying, “If I thought going to the war would bring freedom and equality to twenty-two million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me. I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my beliefs. We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
Many other civil rights advocates had already started or were about to start to convey the same message as Ali. More voices started to focus and convey the same message. The Congress of Racial Equity and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee opposed the War while advocating for black power. In 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for peace in Vietnam as a part of civil rights objectives. The focus on the message of equality for black people did not waiver and in time an increasing number of African Americans opposed the War as a racial justice issue.
Now 50 years later we are still fighting for racial equality with Kaepernick leading the way. The NFL owners have stripped him of his livelihood but his message still has to be carried forward, it must be heard. Other athletes have taken on this challenge. Players of all genders in various sports at all levels are kneeling in protest.
Supporters without a large platform must also learn from Ali’s example and stay focused. Keep the conversation on racial injustice. If someone tries to bate you into discussing something else by saying that Kaepernick is unpatriotic or ungrateful, filter out the noise and bring the conversation back to racial injustice. Focus.
A Cautionary Tale
by Sandell Morse
I arrived in Barcelona on the day of a National Strike, called to protest police brutality during the Catalan independence vote, the Sunday before. Trying to keep voters from the polls, Spanish police wielded sticks and shot rubber bullets. According to the government in Madrid, the Catalan vote was illegal, a violation of the constitution that proclaimed the unity of the Spanish nation. To the Catalans, the vote was the culmination of years and years of history. They are a nearly autonomous state with their own language and culture. As Jew, I understand the importance of maintaining my culture; yet, I also understand the need to listen and to compromise. Of course money is involved in this dispute. The Catalan region is prosperous, and Madrid taxes the Catalans, heavily. That a prosperous region pays more in Federal taxes is more the norm than not. But the Catalans claim they are getting less than they should, and that they are not being treated fairly.
On that Tuesday morning when my friend and I met at the airport, public transportation had closed down. Most businesses, in solidarity with the protest, would be closed, too. We stood in a long taxi line. Our driver, a friendly young man, explained that he could not take us to our hotel. The street was closed. He would let us out nearby and give us directions. We pulled our suitcases down the narrow cobbled Carrer de Sant Pau. No cars. Few pedestrians. Shuttered shops.
After a shower to ward off jet lag, my friend and I walked for hours, first to Barconletta and the beaches, crowded with families, with young people and with the old. People sat at sidewalk bars, drinking beer. Tables were filled. Children raced in the sand. Near the cement walkway, young men built sculptures out of sand, and I realized later, there was a cup where passers-by dropped coins. I was particularly taken with a sculpture of a dragon holding a cup of fire in its mouth. Saint George or Sant Jordi, the dragon slayer, is the patron Saint of Catalonia.
After an early supper at La Bombeta, a no frills tapas bar crowded with locals, my friend and I walked again. The night was balmy, the air calm. As light faded, we wandered into the Place Sant Jaume, recognizable by two large buildings standing face to face, City Hall and the Palau de la Generalitat, the Catalan government building. This was city’s political center, and a heavy police presence guarded these buildings. Independence flags hung from nearby balconies, along with a banner that proclaimed independence. As we crossed the square, we passed folks wearing the Catalan independence flag—yellow and red stripes, a blue triangle, a white star—like capes. We lingered at a corner, and we watched. A TV crew had set up in front of us, two men, one with a microphone, the other with his camera. They didn’t seem to be on air. A cyclist rode past, the Catalan independence flag flying from a pole. A few groups had gathered in the square. Not more than ten people in each. There were children..
Perhaps, after Sunday’s and Monday’s violence, the Spanish police had learned their lesson—there would be no rubber bullets, no violence. Not tonight. Nor was there a solution to the political divide. The majority of Catalans who voted chose independence, but many Catalans did not vote. By voting they would have legitimized an election they deemed invalid. Catalans were divided on the issue of independence, but what struck me, that night, was peaceful way these folks expressed their opposition. They came as friends and as families—this was what I saw. I did not see opposition groups shouting in their faces. I did not see men or women carrying weapons, pistols or assault rifles. Sanity prevailed.
The States are not Europe. We have and have had a different sensibility, but now, we have lost our way. We have elected a demagogue who undermines our democracy with his irresponsible tweets. With his threats. His stupidity. That Tuesday night in Barcelona, an emotional distance opened between me and my country, and I felt sad, deeply sad. Like the Catalonians, we are a deeply divided society. Perhaps, we are Catalonia’s cautionary tale.
SANDELL MORSE’S nonfiction has been noted in The Best American Essays series and published in Creative Nonfiction, Ploughshares, the New England Review, Fourth Genre and Ascent, among others. She has won the Michael Steinberg essay prize, been nominated for Best of the Net and for a Pushcart Prize. She has recently completed a manuscript, Unearthing Stories of Jewish Women in Vichy France, in which she blends narrative nonfiction, memoir, travel and history. Her website is sandellmorse.com
CHETAN TIWARI is a civil rights lawyer who represents plaintiffs in employment discrimination, police misconduct, prisoner rights and immigration matters. Chetan is originally from Canada and presently lives in Roxbury with his spouse and daughter. He is a diehard sports fan who supports almost all Toronto teams (Go Oilers!). One day he wants to represent NCAA athletes to advocate for their rights to earn a fair wage, and write novels and non-fiction books examining civil rights and their role in our changing society. He also wants to teach his daughter how to be a dominant force in the paint. Chetan has written several blog posts dealing with the intersection of sports and politics.