Responses to Kaepernick’s Protest Miss the Point and Overlook Real Issues for Military Personnel

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Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and people overreacting on social media.

The backlash against San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was predictable, and the threats and racially-based trolling were not unexpected – though disappointing.

Kaepernick’s decision to sit down during the pledge of allegiance drew the ire of veterans, opportunistic politicians and a host of people who cover the spectrum of polite dissidents to openly racist and scary human beings.

Some people are attacking Kaepernick over what they perceive to be an invalid view of life in the United States for minorities, particularly African Americans. Individuals who claim to not understand the specific issues he is protesting seem to be unaware of slavery, Jim Crow laws and the variety of other socioeconomic, cultural and legal hurdles that African Americans continue to face in the Land of the Free.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said Aug. 27, after members of the media noticed that he didn’t stand during the singing of the national anthem before a game against the Denver Broncos.

Others are upset at Kaepernick due to his financial success – which apparently makes it impossible for him to recognize, and even experience, some of the issues he’s protesting. While one could argue that his coffers and celebrity elevate him into a position to enact change, I don’t think many people were labeling him privileged while he was growing up – a biracial child who was given up for adoption.

But perhaps the most strikingly inaccurate response has been the connection between his decision to remain seated during the National Anthem and a lack of appreciation of military personnel.

That isn’t the case.

Credit: Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group
Credit: Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group

No, Kaepernick was not focusing his message at service personnel – he was addressing the politicians and moneyed individuals who have maintained the types of de jure and de facto racism that African Americans have experienced for hundreds of years in the U.S. – after they were brought over against their will, I might add.

He was protesting many of the actions, attitudes and practices of the U.S., which is his right to do as a citizen.

However, that doesn’t mean people critiquing his decision of how to protest are inherently wrong, or that it is unfair to say that military personnel don’t have the right to be upset.

On Monday, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees presented his critique of Kaepernick in a manner that respected the 49ers quarterback’s right to protest, while contextualizing his disagreement with how Colin decided to protest.
“The great thing about this country is that we have the freedoms that allow you to speak out openly about any issue. So I’m not commenting on the issue itself because any person has the right to speak out on any issue they want. That’s the great thing about being an American,” Brees told ESPN. “But the American flag is what represents those freedoms. It represents the very freedom that Colin Kaepernick gets the opportunity to exercise by speaking out his opinion in a peaceful manner about that issue.”

Such a disposition is reasonable without being disrespectful or derisive – a rarity among the series of responses to Kaepernick’s actions.

Despite having a fairly eloquent viewpoint, Brees is also focusing on manner over substance, which is understandable. Though, I should also point out that lyrics in the national anthem celebrate slavery, as Jon Schwarz from The Intercept noted.

For a nation that relied on slavery for so long, only to follow-up that practice with Jim Crow laws and other mechanisms for keeping newly-freed African Americans informally enslaved and largely removed from American society, it doesn’t seem surprising nor inappropriate for a person to feel a need to protest such actions.

Credit: John Drey/ Mercury Sun
Credit: John Drey/ Mercury Sun

Kaepernick did so in a peaceful way, highlighting the number of African Americans killed annually by police – who, themselves, largely escape persecution and often enjoy extended paid leaves.

The fact that so many people connect Kaepernick’s actions to having a somehow anti-military personnel stance is unfortunate, and it serves to accomplish nothing for any of the parties directly or indirectly connected to the situation – though a visceral reaction is also understandable given the traumas that often plague service members, and how many of us are limited in our ability to help them.

This situation also presents a larger dilemma that requires critical thinking and a general understanding of how our society operates. Such a conversation is nearly impossible on instant reaction-based social media platforms, where Kaepernick has experienced the most vitriol.

Properly debating such issues – even outside of a world limited to 140 character-long messages – will be difficult, so here are some facts to consider, which are almost nonpartisan and clearly deserving of more thought, attention and outrage.

Post-9/11 GI Bill funds still flow to predatory, for-profit universities

Despite a crackdown by the Obama Administration, eight of the 10 universities receiving the most funding from the Post-9/11 GI Bill were for-profit universities, according to a Senate committee report in 2014. The updated bill, which was designed to provide enhanced educational opportunities for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their family members, has paid out more than $58 billion since 2009.

Many veterans lack health insurance

According to a study published in the journal The Lancet in 2014 – which used statistics from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey – more than 1.2 million veterans lacked health insurance in 2012. Additionally, only 8.9 million out of the 22 million veterans in the U.S. are enrolled in U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health benefits, which are reserved for military personnel who have been disabled through military service or have limited financial resources. In a 2016 follow-up by The Washington Times, many of the problems besetting the department and veterans seeking adequate medical care seem to remain.

The findings from the study in The Lancet are discussed here.

A veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes

In 2013, the VA released a study of veteran suicides between 1999 and 2010, which showed that 22 veterans killed themselves per day. With limited support infrastructure after retiring from the military – and insufficient federal funds earmarked to addressed the problem – veterans often have few options, or none at all.

Before someone attacks Kaepernick for his decision to speak out on an important issue, he or she should consider what Colin is actually protesting, and why such an uproar over an individual’s decision to sit during the national anthem is a gross misplacement of anger.

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