Last night in Alabama, deep in the midst of what was once slave country, President Trump criticized NFL players more intensely and aggressively than he’s ever been toward white supremacists or the Russians. He spoke of the players as “those people” and the football audience as “people like yourselves,” thus speaking in language that once again made it clear that his vision of America includes white people and does not include Blacks. And he spoke with an anger that revealed that the players have gotten deep under his skin by kneeling for the anthem to protest police violence. But why has this gotten so far under that orangey epidermis?
Trump said players who kneel for the anthem—to protest police violence—are “sons of bitches.” He said their actions are “a total disrespect of our heritage,” as if football is more a part of “our heritage” than protest against government, which is at the heart of Americanness.
On Saturday, Trump continued the diatribe against Black athletes, withdrawing an invitation to basketball player Stephen Curry to visit the White House with his championship team and declaring that any football player who kneels during the national anthem should be fired.
Surely, our American heritage includes Dr. Martin Luther King, whose non-violent protests are echoed in the NFL’s silent protests. But whenever Trump speaks of our heritage he’s always speaking of a specific strain of American history, never the totality. He means Robert E. Lee, not Harriet Tubman. Trump said, “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’s fired?’” He said fans should “leave the stadium” when even one player kneels in protest. At no point did he ever suggest that the players are citizens who have the right to protest. He took an oath to protect those citizens, but yesterday he put them in danger. At no point did he even address what they were protesting which is police violence. Did I mention that? Sorry, the issue always gets lost so quickly as if this is about the flag or the military. It’s not. It’s about police violence against Black people.
Trump seemed indignant that these Americans had the nerve to kneel—repeating the dodge that this is about the flag and the military rather than about, you know, police violence. The racial dynamics of what he said were clear—almost all of the protesting players are Black. All of the owners are white. Most of the fans who attend games are white. He’s telling white owners and fans to show those Black players who’s boss. Spoken in the heart of what was once slave country, he sure sounded like one massa telling the others to get their slaves in line.
Why Trump and others are so enraged by the protests has everything to do with their time and place. When a player kneels during the anthem we’re forced to think about something other than the game—at a minimum, we’re forced to think about how some Black players are upset about something in America. We’re forced to break out of the ongoing waking dream that lulls some into thinking that race doesn’t matter. Part of white privilege is not having to think about race, being able to ignore it. NFL kneeling forces the complaint into view, breaking the dream. This is the core problem—the Black players have disrupted the white dream that everything is fine and race doesn’t matter in this space. They have woken Trump from the spiritual slumber that happens as you let thoughts of the outside world fade away and settle into watching a good football game. Trump’s Alabama roar sounds to me like the angry rumbles of a man abruptly awakened from a nap. And waking people up is exactly what they wanted.
Kaepernick and the others who have been kneeling are protesting in a style inspired by Black Lives Matter, borrowing a key tenet from their philosophy. From the beginning BLM understood that protest needs to take place in white communities and it needs to inconvenience middle or upper class white people. Dr. Melina Abdullah, an early member, told me, “We wanted to disrupt the spaces that represent those forces who are oppressing us.” By that she meant their protests should take place in white neighborhoods. That’s why one of BLM’s first marches was through Beverly Hills. “That was intentional,” Dr. Abdullah said, “because that’s what represents white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalism.”
By protesting in white communities rather than in the hood, they were disrupting those who benefit from racist practices—from white privilege—and forcing them to think about racism even though they didn't want to. BLM and it’s concerns can’t be background noise when they shut down a highway you’re driving on. They want to interrupt and disrupt your day because white supremacy has entirely disrupted their lives, so why should you get to act as if it doesn’t exist? Black people are dying at the hand of their government, why should they allow for business as usual?
Kaepernick and those who’ve followed him have brought that BLM mindset into the NFL and it has succeeded spectacularly. No other act of civil disobedience has forced the issue of police violence into the public consciousness more effectively than NFL kneeling. At times, sports media has morphed into a forum to discuss police violence, thus pushing the issue into corners of the American mind that it could not have otherwise found. The players have understood that to change the status quo they must disrupt the status quo.
Trump wanted to silence the players. He’s happy to have them perform for his pleasure,
but when they think of themselves as citizens and find their political voices and agitate for justice, well then, they’ve crossed a line. Then they’re sons of bitches. And just as Hillary Clinton emboldened Trump’s supporters by calling them “deplorable,” so has Trump emboldened NFL players by challenging them. If he wanted their silence he would’ve been better off ignoring their protests which have been getting less attention this season. Instead, he has given new life and new power to the protests he hates. Now more players will kneel—anyone who wants to publicly defy the President has an easy way to do it. You don’t have to go through the effort of winning a championship and refusing to go to the White House as Steph Curry did (before Trump childishly rescinded his invitation). And now we’ll watch more closely to see whether players will kneel in defiance of the President. Thanks to Trump NFL kneeling has taken on greater significance. Trump tried to make it go away but he’s only made it worse. But that’s his way.
Also: can someone tell us what is the right way to protest?