One year ago, Colin Kaepernick, then-quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers National Football League team, refused to stand for the US national anthem, famously kneeling instead. He was alone in his protest.
At the time, he said: “I’m not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.
“There are bodies in the street and [cops] getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Over the weekend of September 23-24, tens of millions of football fans watched on TV as 200 mostly Black players knelt or raised their fists while the national anthem was sung. The rest of their teams stood in solidarity with their right to protest, arm-in-arm. In some cases, entire teams stayed in the locker room while the anthem played.
It must be assumed that such protests are being replicated at football games at the college, high school and grade school levels.
Some of the team’s billionaire owners, most of whom support President Donald Trump and donated millions to him, have stood by their teams. They certainly don’t agree with their protesting players, as has been evidenced by the refusal of any of them to hire the talented Kaepernick, who has been blacklisted for his protest.
They did so for three reasons: one, they didn’t want to be seen as obeying Trump; two, they didn’t want their players to hate them more than employees generally dislike their bosses; and, three, if they started firing Black players who make up the bulk of the NFL, their teams would be decimated.
Earlier this year, emulating Kaepernick’s protest, some other Black players “took the knee” during pre-season practice games. On September 22, the night before the weekend games that featured the mass player protests, Trump attacked them at a mass rally of his supporters (almost entirely white).
The president said, “Wouldn’t you love to see” team owners respond to such protesters by saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired”. He then emphasised his point by shouting: “Fired!”
Basketball players have also been subjected to Trump’s wrath. It’s been a tradition that the winner of that sport’s professional competition gets invited to the White House. Stephen Curry, one of the top players from last year’s winners the Golden State Warriors, said he would not go, “because we don’t stand for what our president has said, and the things he hasn’t said at the right time”.
In response, Trump disinvited the entire team. Other basketball players then denounced Trump in return, including the NBA’s best known player LeBron James.
While the weekend of NFL protests were spurred specifically by Trump and his offensive comments, the context is the Black Lives Matter protests against ongoing police killings of Blacks, which repeatedly go unpunished.
One of Trump’s offensive comments came after the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, North Carolina, in August. Trump responded by stating the anti-racist protesters were on par with the fascist-minded rioters, who killed one anti-racist woman. He said there were “good people” among the Nazis, Klansmen and other white nationalists present.
Killer cop let off
The context also includes the ongoing protests against a killer cop going free after a September 15 “not guilty” ruling, in St Louis, a suburb of which is Ferguson, which was the scene of the first Black Lives Matter mass protest.
The case goes back nearly seven years. On December 20, 2011, white officers Jason Stockley and his partner Brian Bianchi, pursued Anthony Smith, who was Black, in a mile-long car chase after spotting him in what they suspected was a drug transaction. In a video obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Stockley can be heard saying that he is “going to kill this motherfucker”.
Stockley told Bianchi to ram Smith’s car, which released its air bags, causing Smith to stop. Both cops got out, with Stockley carrying a pistol and a rifle. He repeatedly fired his pistol, hitting Smith five times.
Stockley claimed he fired in self-defense when Smith reached for a gun. But forensics showed that Smith was shot within six inches from Stockley’s gun. A gun was found in the car, but it had only Stockley’s DNA on it. It was clearly planted in the car by Stockley.
Revealingly in 2013, the St Louis Board of Police Commissioners paid US$900,000 to Smith’s daughter, who was only one year old at the time of her father’s killing, in a wrongful death suit.
The case was first reviewed by state and federal prosecutors in 2012. The District Attorney declined to prosecute Stockley. He was finally arrested last year on the basis of the forensic evidence and witness statements after pressure from activists and community members.
It is rare for killer cops to be prosecuted, but the evidence was overwhelming. Unlike in other cases, in light of the overwhelming evidence Stockley was prosecuted. He chose to have a trial by judge, not a jury trial. The case dragged on.
Finally, the judge ruled on September 15 that Stockley was “not guilty”, using such specious arguments as Smith must have had a gun since he was a drug dealer (despite this allegation being unproven). The DNA evidence be damned. The ruling was farcical.
That night, peaceful protests erupted and have continued since. The police responded with violence. On September 17, police surrounded protesters in a move known as “kettling” and attacked. Cops removed protective goggles from some, spraying chemicals directly into their faces.
A visiting filmmaker was caught in the kettle, pushed to the ground and dragged away. He reported being knocked unconscious and then pepper-sprayed when he came to. Several people who were not demonstrating were caught in the kettle and arrested. An undercover cop, unrecognised by his fellow officers, was assaulted and arrested.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the police for “unacceptable, unlawful and unconstitutional behavior”. The suit accuses police of ramming a police car into a dispersing crowd, using excessive force, using chemicals on protesters, illegal arrests and destroying people’s video footage of their actions.
The protests in St Louis continue — and the protests by professional sports players across the US are certain to as well.