Taking a knee for social justice

The horrific murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police May 25 set off a tidal wave of national and global outrage that has renewed interest in and debate on Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 protests against racial inequality and police brutality.

Many of those denouncing the way police treat people of color can be seen down on one knee, reflecting the position Kaepernick, then quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, and teammate Eric Reid assumed during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the NFL’s 2016 preseason. (Originally, Kaepernick sat during the anthem but was advised by Nate Boyer, a former member of the Green Berets and the NFL, to kneel. )

What began as the protest of a few men snowballed into controversy in 2017 as President Donald J. Trump joined the chorus of those who saw Kaepernick’s gesture as disrespectful of the anthem, the flag, the military and the nation. As Trump exhorted NFL team owners with kneeling players to get “that son of b—— off the field,” more players knelt, linked arms and raised fists before a tense preseason game that September. The NFL, however, closed ranks against Kaepernick, who would lose his position, his job and ultimately his career in the league, which reached a settlement with him in 2019.

Context drives perception and time, as they say, is another country. Four years later, after a nation witnessed now former police officer Derek Chauvin knee George Floyd to death, the tide is with Kaepernick as those who were formerly opposed or even lukewarm to the protest, like New Orleans Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell respectively, have come out in support of Black Lives Matter. They say they now understand what Kaepernick said at the time: “I am not protesting the anthem or the nation, I’m protesting organized brutality. To me, this is much bigger than football and it would be selfish to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Of course, it was about the anthem and the flag that represent the nation, too. It was what is known as gesture politics, but it was superb gesture politics, focusing on an act that resonates across cultures and centuries — the prayerful, respectful genuflection. (Reid poetically likened the position to a flag at half-mast in mourning for lives lost.) The gesture is said to have been introduced by Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) as a compromise between his conquered Persian subjects, who made an obeisance to him as their emperor, and his Greco-Macedonian army, which reserved such tribute for the gods. The Roman emperors, who modeled themselves after Alexander, took up the idea of having their subjects genuflect in homage, beginning as early as Septimius Severus (reigned 191-211). The medieval kings did the same.

Genuflecting survives in the high forms of Christianity, including Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism and the Western Orthodox Church. It can also be seen in the presentation of the flag to the family of a fallen soldier, in the marriage proposal and, ironically, in athletes praying on the field. (Remember Tim Tebow tebowing?) But whereas you genuflect on the right knee in religious traditions, you propose or present the flag to the seated family on your left.)

The act of genuflecting, then, is a profoundly powerful, moving one — more so for its simple grace. Think of Leonardo’s “The Annunciation” (1472, oil on panel, Uffizi Gallery) and the tender way in which the archangel Gabriel kneels and raises a gentle hand so as not to startle the demure Virgin Mary any more than he must with his news that she is to be the mother of Jesus. What Kaepernick did was to fuse that respect with a remove. This makes his gesture vastly different from the flag-burning protesters of the 1960s, Muhammed Ali’s fierce refusal to go to the Vietnam War or runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised a black-gloved fist in the Black Power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Less confrontationally but just as forcefully, Kaepernick’s gesture said, “I will give you your due, even supplicate you, but I will not be bowed.” Indeed, it seems to have taken a page from the playbook of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who exhorted followers to “yield and overcome.”

The irony is that when a quarterback takes a knee in football it’s to end a play. Instead, Kaepernick and company used the gesture to ignite a movement.

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