In 1968, during a time of severe racial and social division in the United States, the actions of two African-American Olympic athletes rocked the sports world. Standing on the podium donning black gloves, track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the national anthem as a symbol of black power, solidarity and resistance.
Fifty years later, with issues of police brutality and a broken justice system still perpetuating racial and social division in the United States, athletes are once again using the anthem as a medium to speak out, kneeling in protest where Smith and Carlos once raised their fists.
On Aug. 14, during the San Francisco 49ers’ first preseason football game, quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the playing of The Star Spangled Banner.
While this individual action went largely unnoticed at first, as the number of games in which Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem accumulated, his kneeling quickly became a big story.
“I am not going to stand to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick said. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Because of his form of protest, Kaepernick has been accused of disrespecting the military and has received incredible backlash. Everyone – from Donald Trump to Kate Upton to corporations who have since revoked their sponsorships – have taken a turn at publicly shaming the NFL quarterback.
Despite the public outcry, the movement is beginning to spread. During the opening weekend of the NFL season, many of Kaepernick’s peers joined him in kneeling, while others raised their fists in solidarity.
The opening weekend also coincided with the 15th anniversary of the events of 9/11, which fueled further outrage at the players’ protests.
In response to critiques, Miami Dolphins running back Arian Foster said, “they say ‘It’s not the time to do this.’ Well, when is the time? It’s never the time in somebody else’s eyes because they’ll always feel like it’s good enough.”
While it is easy to look to our southern neighbours and criticize how issues of race have persisted, it is important that we do not become complacent about systemic racism in Canada, to which our Mount Allison community is far from immune.
Fifth-year student and former varsity athlete Charles Kacou is no stranger to these racial issues.
“Sackville is a nice town [with] a small community, but at the same time, there are times when racism does arise,” he said. “You see it subtly, maybe not every day, but it’s there.”
Kacou recalled one recent incident. “I was approached at the grocery store and asked, ‘Do you speak French like the others?’ I asked what he was talking about and he said, ‘Aren’t you all from Ghana or something?’”
While Kacou feels lucky to be in a community where the issues are less extreme than in other areas in the world, he still feels as though there are conversations to be had and issues to be resolved.
Discussing the Kaepernick protests, Kacou said, “people need to understand that he’s just trying to make a point and trying to show that maybe there are things we should talk about more.”
While the political outcome of Kaepernick’s protest remains to be seen, the movement has already succeeded in one major way: Kaepernick has us talking. Whether you support his methods or feel that he has gone too far is not what matters here. It is time to start taking a serious look at these issues.