Colin Kaepernick, Woodrow Wilson and Effective Protest

The Colin Kaepernick protest reminds of a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast series, Revisionist History. In an episode called Generous Orthodoxy, he examines what it means to protest. His first example was of a 98-year old Mennonite minister took on his church over gay marriage. The minister supported his gay son’s decision to marry and was subsequently excommunicated from his local church. For a man who had dedicated his entire life to that church and still believed in Jesus, it was a tough blow. His son had left the Church but at his father’s gently urging, he had eventually come back to Christianity, to Jesus, through a different road. The minister wrote a letter to his church which gained a lot of attention for its grace and humility. He didn’t lose his religion but nor did he stand down from loving and supporting his son.

new-exhibit-at-princeton-university-revisits-woodrow-wilson-cad14d32dab77f46The other example was from campus protests at Princeton where people battled about whether to remove references to Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was a former President of Princeton, former President of the United States and failed architect of the League of Nations. A significant man, by any measure. He was also an avowed and committed racist. (Srsly it’s pretty bad). Students at the university protested against naming the School of Public and International Affairs after Wilson. They claimed that his very mention was an affront to the ideals of the university; that references to him left them feeling unwanted. Others supported keeping Wilson’s name at the university and only emphasizing his great achievements. And still others tried to suggest a compromise – keep his reference and mention both his great achievements and his racism. Those who protested did so vociferously and with great stridency (screaming that the university owed them nothing! and that they were owed everything by the university!). There is real pain in their voices when you hear it. But ultimately, they lost and Wilson’s name has stayed prominent at Princeton.

Gladwell sympathized with the Princeton protesters but saw how their scorched earth tactics were to no avail. They made the protest as much about themselves as the issue of Wilson’s racism. The gist is that there is a way to protest that respects the institution even while trying to change it. And certainly there are those who are so excised by their issues (whether on the the Left and Right) and so frustrated by a seeming inability to be heard, let alone make progress, that they throw their hands up in the air and just want burn everything to the ground. Such people are often just peeing in the wind.

Having said all that, I respect Colin Kaepernick’s protest and the issues he claims to be protesting. To call him unpatriotic is lazy and disingenuous. As a friend of mine on Facebook recently said:

The first play to discredit a movement is to call it unpatriotic. Just those words alone will influence countless people who don’t even bother reading the story. We should all be sitting during the national anthem the way we’ve been treated over the last 3 1/2 decades. We let money supersede basic human compassion. We’d rather build oil pipelines for billionaires than protect the people who will suffer when they break. We let Big Pharma charge us the highest prices for medicine in the entire world. We perpetuate global conflict in the name of freedom, but aren’t we already the land of the free? We allow the jailing of our people for corporate profits by privately run prisons. Any of these issues should be enough to enrage people, yet here we are questioning Colin Kaepernick because he had the guts to do something. The apathy in this country is sickening, and until we all decide to sit down, nothing will change.

Perhaps Kaepernick feels this is the most he can do. I hope not. I hope that he uses his platform (as long as it lasts) to continue to speak out about police brutality and violence against people of color. I hope he puts his money where his mouth is. Maybe I’m being patronizing but I feel that, unfortunately, if Kaepernick continues only to sit during the national anthem – then lost among the many points and counterpoints of whether his salary is relevant to dismiss his protests or whether it’s truly patriotic to sit or stand will be the issue itself.

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