Wait, what were we protesting again?

Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem—photo by Thearon Henderson

Donald Trump has spent the last several days in a Facebook uncle-style tizzy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, which he would totally fire them for doing if he were an NFL owner instead of a failed USFL owner who somehow became president of the United States. There are two things to remember here. One, Colin Kaepernick started kneeling last season to protest unfair treatment of African Americans and other minorities by police officers. Two, his gesture has followed the ironclad progression of American protests: controversy, mischaracterization, co-opting.

A. Ron Galbraith sends us this item from Deadspin, in which the Green Bay Packers encourage their fans to link arms during the national anthem and stand intertwined before Thursday night’s game “like the threads in your favorite jersey.” I quote the Packers’ official statement:

Those of us joining arms on Thursday will be different in so many ways, but one thing that binds us together is that we are all individuals who want to help make our society, our country and our world a better place. We believe that in diversity there can be UNI-versity. Intertwined, we represent the many people who helped build this country, and we are joining together to show that we are ready to continue to build.

First of all “university” is already a word. Why be diverse when you can be universe? Oh, right—because that doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Second, Kaepernick’s original protest was not about how he felt we should be diverse, or that he did or did not want to make our society/country/world a better place. It was about cops killing black people and getting away with it. What possible value could there be in a protest that A) includes everybody and B) expresses the idea that everything should be better? Both of those elements obviate the need for protest, by definition. It’s not a meaningful gesture if everyone does it, and it’s not a meaningful message if everyone agrees with it. Next Thursday, let’s all go to the bathroom to show that despite our differences, we all want to go to the bathroom.

Of course, this linked-arms business is not a plan for a protest or even a demonstration. It’s a marketing strategy. Green Bay has seized part of the zeitgeist and emptied it of its content, leaving a husk to fill with its own important message: Green Bay Packers. That football team believes in making the world a better place, just like you and literally everyone else. It believes we all have the right to protest by delivering an anodyne message that everyone agrees with. It does not believe in, say, hiring Colin Kaepernick. By encouraging us all to do this arms thing instead of what Kaepernick did, it might even imply that it does not believe in the existence of racially motivated police brutality. Probably, though, the only thing the Green Bay Packers want to convey is their vague corporate enthusiasm for society and its freedoms. It’s like when Kendall Jenner gave that Pepsi to a cop while people marched with placards that read “join the conversation.” Public issues: we support your right to debate them, ideally wearing your favorite jersey.

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  1. What does it look like when a protest succeeds? Is there any way mainstream interest gets expressed except anodyne adoption by the middle of the bell curve? I disagree that corporate, governmental, or nonprofit involvement/support/co-opting empties anyone’s protest. Organizations fielding their own toothless demonstrations is a sign the protest message is being internalized. How else are the Packers supposed to hear Kaepernick’s message? If they hired him, might you still claim his protest is being co-opted by corporate interests? It seems like you might measure the adoption of a protest’s message by how much conflict it causes. Adoption can never be as sincere as the original.

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