In the past few weeks, the Black Lives Matter movement has found unprecedented public support in and beyond social media. Even the Amish turned out to protest the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and far too many others at the hands of police.
The question on many people’s minds right now is how to find their place in this movement. Within this historic outpouring of solidarity, well-meaning allies across the United States and the world must weigh how to thoughtfully engage and support.
For many of our younger generations, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in the 2016 NFL season was one of the first times racially motivated protests were the object of public fixation. The nation’s responses to this protest provided an education in racial injustice many didn’t know they needed.
Preceding a fateful preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem in protest of police brutality.
There were a few strong reactions.
In the first camp were Kaepernick supporters, who thought his protest was as American as the anthem.
The U.S. women’s national soccer team’s own Megan Rapinoe, for example, knelt during the anthem before a match between the Seattle Reign and the Chicago Red Stars to show solidarity with Kaepernick just a week after that Packers preseason game.
“It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this,” she explained to American Soccer Now. “We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.”
In the second camp were skeptics, who denounced Kaepernick’s protest as a slap in the face to veterans and patriots alike.
Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, for example, called the protests “a terrible thing,” suggesting on “The Dori Monson Show” that Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him.”
In the last and arguably most obstructive camp were sympathizers, who agreed with Kaepernick’s goal but not with his methods.
“I wholeheartedly disagree,” NFL star Drew Brees told ESPN. “There’s plenty of other ways that you can (speak out) in a peaceful manner that doesn’t involve being disrespectful to the American flag.”
The failure of many white Americans to understand how lukewarm solidarity can detract from the momentum of the movement presents as a modern problem, but actually finds its roots in the Civil Rights Movement.
In “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. warned against this exact threat of indifference, explaining that the Black man’s “great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
With two grandfathers who fought in World War II and a reverence for the military, Brees justified his distaste for Kaepernick’s protests with his unflinching patriotism. He exemplified a common American stance — that there is a time and a place for politics, and the world of sports is neither.
Yet, this year, the story reignited after Brees again came under fire for passivity in the face of injustice. In the wake of Floyd’s killing, he reiterated his position in an interview with Yahoo, saying, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” He also addressed the tragedy in a halfhearted post that culminated in the words, “Your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying,” further insinuating his disapproval of certain forms of protest.
This time, he was rebuked by teammate Malcolm Jenkins in an emotional minuteslong video addressed to Brees.
“When we step off this field and I take my helmet off, I am a Black man walking around America, and I am telling you I am dealing with these things … and your response to me is, ‘Don’t talk about that here. This is not the place.’ ” Jenkins vented. “Where is the place, Drew? I’m disappointed. I’m hurt.”
Jenkins, long outspoken about racial injustice, was subsequently hired to be a CNN contributor on social issues, the first active player of any sport to do so. And, heeding Jenkins’ words, Brees posted a statement on Instagram days later amending his stance on the current protests.
“Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates, and leaders in the black community, I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been,” the caption reads. “We as a white community need to listen and learn from the pain and suffering of our black communities. We must acknowledge the problems, identify the solutions, and then put this into action. The black community cannot do it alone. This will require all of us.”
While it is not the responsibility of oppressed groups to educate allies on how to engage, Brees’ response to being held accountable is a hopeful litmus test for how a larger shift in American sentiment could look.
This surge of activism has also brought important new lessons about productive ways to bring change. Allies throughout the sports world are taking to their platforms to stand in solidarity. For example, non-Black coaches such as Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr are being outspoken and standing for change.
In all of this, allies young and old have much to learn. Voices such as Brees’ are important to interrogate as the United States wrestles with its own injustices. The example set by Kaepernick and reiterated by so many after him rightfully holds allies to a higher standard of effecting real change.