I thought I admired NFL player Colin Kaepernick's stance on American politics – then he said he didn't vote

The system he spoke of it isn’t going to change until an elected politician, or more likely a group of elected politicians, take the necessary action. It took elected politicians to push through Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of1968. It took elected politicians to desegregate schools

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The Independent Online

Something strange happened to me at the start of the current NFL season. I found myself cheering for the San Francisco 49ers, having followed the Oakland Raiders, the team’s nearest neighbours, since American football first hit British screens more than 30 years ago.

The reason? Colin Kaepernick. Watching from afar, I found the 49er quarterback’s decision to protest the repeated shooting of unarmed African Americans by police by refusing to stand for the US national anthem brave and inspiring.

It took real courage in a country where people have an extremely strong attachment to their Star Spangled Banner and were extremely angry with Kapernick when he did what he did. Sufficiently angry for some of them to threaten him with physical harm or worse.

It sparked an intense debate, sadly too much of it focusing on the nature of the protest and not enough on what Kaepernick was actually saying, but at least it got people talking.

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I wasn’t alone in finding it inspiring, either. Others took hold of the flame at other NFL teams, at colleges and at high schools. Some of the protests saw white players standing, or rather kneeling, shoulder to shoulder with their black team mates.

While it’s hard to see Kaepernick’s sporting accomplishments coming even close to theirs – with the exception of one good season he’s been a disappointment – his gesture of protest put him alongside some of the greats who are now celebrated while Kaepernick is vilified. People like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who used their sporting talent to make a point, and suffered for it.

In the face of the furious attacks upon him, Kaepernick defended his stance eloquently, insisting that it was not about disrespecting America’s service personnel (as some had claimed) and pledging to donate $1m of his salary to communities afflicted by racial injustice and police brutality,

Then he went and publicly stated that he didn’t vote in the recent presidential election.  “To me it did’t really matter who went in there. The system still remains intact that oppresses people of colour,” he said, provoking another angry reaction, this time from many of his erstwhile supporters.

Rightly so. While what he said is sadly true (and not just of the US; I’m well aware that the UK has failings too), the trouble with Kaepernick’s stance is that the system he spoke of it isn’t going to change until an elected politician, or more likely a group of elected politicians, take the necessary action.

It took elected politicians to push through Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of1968. It took elected politicians to push through the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, a favourite of mine given that I am in that group.

It took elected politicians to pass the Equal Pay Act of 1963. It took elected politicians to desegregate schools and to bring an end to Jim Crow in the South.

The same is true of the many progressive pieces of legislation that have been enacted in Britain, and in Europe, and in the rest of the Western World.

It usually took people like Kaepernick to take a stand, or even take a knee, first. Some had to do more than that, risking and incurring actual physical harm, even giving up their lives.

But to secure the changes they campaigned so hard for it still ultimately took the action of elected politicians to write, and vote for, and pass laws.

The oft repeated claim that “all politicians are all the same” is untrue. They are all of them flawed, but they most definitely are not all the same. There are some politicians who are very much more likely to enact laws like those I mentioned above and there are other politicians who would leave things as they are, or even put them into reverse.

Hillary Clinton might be worthy of the some of the criticisms Kaepernick has aimed at her. Her record is far from spotless.

But compare her to Donald Trump, who labelled an African American supporter a “thug” and booted him out of a rally, blew xenophobic dog whistles with every other speech, and was championed by former members of the Ku Klux Klan and many of the people who have hurled death threats at Kaepernick.

Now I ask you: which is worse?

If Kaepernick couldn’t bring himself to back Clinton, what of Jill Stein? No? Then how about writing in a candidate, as the American system allows? Some would argue that such votes are wasted. They are not. Politicians pay careful attention to what psephologists tell them. If they show that large numbers of people are voting for third parties in support of their ideas, they will take note and like as not adopt some of them (OK, steal them) in the hope of winning more voters for themselves.

There are a lot of maps and graphs flying around the internet at the moment. One of the most telling is the one that demonstrates a majority of millennials backed Clinton in nearly every state. It was the same with Brexit in this country, which they opposed.

If Kaepernick’s voice is heard by them – and the high visibility he has achieved through his protest will ensure that it is – and if it results in even fewer millennials, with their generally progressive views, voting because “it’s not worth it, they’re all the same”, then where does that leave us?

It isn’t just millennials, either. The same is true of Americans of colour, and of other minorities. If they follow Kaepernick’s lead it will leave the field clear to those who mean them ill. It will tighten the grip of the forces that led to Trump, to Brexit, to the rise of the ugly, race-baiting populist right in Europe that is just waiting to take its turn on the world stage.

It will leave the field clear to the sort of people who see police shooting unarmed black citizens and quietly cheer. After they have voted.

It will leave the field clear to the sort of people whose supporters think gay marriage should be illegal. To people who think it’s OK to abuse women, or who perform mocking impressions of disabled people, or who characterise Mexicans as rapists and criminals. But you’ve probably guessed who I’m talking about now.

Bad actors like that rely on apathy as much as they do on whipping up their supporters into frenzies. After emerging as a powerful advocate for change, it is desperately sad to see Kaepernick doing just what people like that want him to do.

 

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