Colin Kaepernick and the Myth of the Good Protest

New Orleans  Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore is a professor of history at Yale. Her op-ed on protest was published in the New York Times and warrants sharing in full because its message of how protest develops from organization and organizing is an essential historical reminder. What follows are Professor Gilmore’s remarks:

Credit Matt Rota

LAST week, the editors of GQ named the quarterback Colin Kaepernick its Citizen of the Year for his work protesting racial injustice. Kaepernick has been heavily criticized by people like President Trump, who claims that an N.F.L. player who kneels during the playing of the national anthem “disrespects our flag” and should be fired; others argue that he is out of bounds as an activist who mixes sports with politics.

The problem is that Kaepernick’s critics, and most of America, don’t really understand how protests work. Our textbooks and national mythology celebrate moments when single acts of civil disobedience, untainted by political organizations, seemed to change the course of history. But the ideal of the “good” protest — one that materialized from an individual’s epiphany — is a fantasy. More often, effective protest is like Mr. Kaepernick’s: it’s collective and contingent and all about long and difficult struggles.

Consider what most Americans would agree were two “good” protests: Rosa Parks’s refusal to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and the student sit-ins at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Parks, the story goes, was exhausted from a day’s work and took a seat in the “whites only” section. To the astonishment of onlookers, she refused to give up her seat when asked. In Greensboro, black college students decided to eat at the local five-and-dime and initiated the first sit-in at a segregated Southern restaurant. They were idealistic and perhaps naïve.

These stories follow a set narrative. They are “firsts”: the first time a black woman refused to give up her seat or the first time students staged a sit-in. They seemed to arise spontaneously when someone fed up with unfair treatment couldn’t take it anymore. Good protesters act as individual citizens, untainted by associations with suspect political organizations.

The trouble is that these stories are historically inaccurate and obscure just how protest in the 20th century forged a more democratic country. A narrative with greater accuracy would allow us to better evaluate protests against racial discrimination. Earlier protests, similar to the one that Kaepernick started, sprang from protesters’ associations with activist organizations, were deeply political rather than individual, and played out in unfamiliar venues in new forms.

Protests that change history have their own long histories. They are almost never the first of their kind. Successful protesters plan campaigns, rather than respond to oppression in a single, spontaneous act. Protesters often belong to organizations that lend theoretical, moral and logistical support. Protests don’t reveal previously hidden wrongs to an unaware public. Instead, they cast those wrongs in a new light. They fail, time and time again. When they succeed, they win only partial victories.

Rosa Parks, for example, was a trained civil rights activist. She built on efforts that started in the 19th century to desegregate transportation and gained speed in the 1930s. In 1940, for example, Pauli Murray, a black woman, refused to give up her seat on a bus in Petersburg, Va.

Though most Americans today look back on the desegregation of public transportation with pride, most white Southerners opposed it vehemently, and many did so violently. During World War II, white passengers and bus drivers beat uniformed black soldiers who tried to integrate buses.

A. Philip Randolph knew that the emergency of war meant that these instances of discrimination ran counter to the nation’s interests. Randolph drew on his long experience as a labor leader to found the March on Washington Movement in 1941. The movement threatened to bring millions of African-Americans to Washington to protest; when President Franklin Roosevelt promised reforms, Randolph called off the march.

Throughout the war, the movement continued to train people who became civil rights protesters in the 1950s, including Pauli Murray. This pressure influenced the Supreme Court in 1946, which ordered desegregation on interstate buses in Morgan v. Virginia. That case set a precedent that Parks strategically worked to extend to local and state laws in Montgomery.

Just as Parks had done, the students sitting-in at the Woolworth counter drew from a long history of struggle. African-Americans had been “stool sitting” since the early 1940s. Howard University students in Washington staged some of the first sit-ins, which involved movement-trained protesters led by Murray. Those sit-ins aimed at national chain stores that operated outside the South, just as the Greensboro sit-ins purposefully did later. The Greensboro students knew all of this, because they were advised by the legendary organizer Ella Baker.

White Americans’ deep investment in the myth that the civil rights movement quickly succeeded based on individual protests has left the impression that organizations such as Black Lives Matter are counterproductive, even sinister. The same things were said of the N.A.A.C.P.

Just as football players kneeling during the national anthem today must repeatedly insist that they are not protesting the flag, Parks and the Greensboro students had to fight against efforts to play down the stakes of their protests. Parks’s action was not about a seat in the front of the bus. It was about Jim Crow, a legal and social system of degradation. And as Baker argued in her speech “Bigger Than a Hamburger,” the Greensboro sit-ins marked the beginning of a fight for education, voting rights and economic opportunity.

Rosa Parks was a hero. So were the students who sat in at the Woolworth lunch counters. But they knew that their heroism was possible only because of decades of what Baker called “spade work.” They knew that organizations to which they belonged and that gave them strength were the most recent manifestations of decades of struggle.

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Jerry Jones’ Trump Tactics are Revealing More of the Dark Side of the NFL

New Orleans  The public rarely gets a good inside view of rich people’s world, but thanks to the Jerry Jones, owner and chief potentate of the Dallas Cowboys, formerly known as America’s Team, we’re all being shown a vivid display of a real time reality show that turns out to be a plain and simple horror movie. The 32 super rich owners of teams in the National Football League (NFL) are arguably one of the most exclusive rich folks clubs in the country. Thanks to Jerry Jones, we can now confirm that their operations are so tone deaf to what’s happening in America to its people and their lives that they are virtually alien beings.

Full disclosure. The New Orleans Saints are on a roll with seven consecutive wins and knocking on the door to win their eight and have become a contender this season. Having never paid much attention to Jerry Jones, his bullying and illegal coercion of his players until the national anthem controversy forced Local 100 United Labor Unions to step in and file charges against his threats with the National Labor Relations Board, so now we follow him more closely to make sure he toes the line.

Turns out that he’s not only a bully to his players and something of a Simon Legree employer, but a “my way or the highway,” wannabe-bully with his fellow rich club owners, as well as bad loser, bad sport, and Trumpian pretender and reality shapeshifter. In a precious irony, he is also making his own team an object of pity, rather than pride, and destroying its brand throughout the country.

His star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, got caught up in a domestic abuse mess, and the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has been largely an empty suit and a poster boy for missteps in handling domestic abuse in the past, stepped up and suspended Elliott for six games for his actions. Courts have upheld the suspensions, and Elliott has dropped his own appeals and served the first game of his suspension already. Jones though wants a special standard for the Cowboys and his star’s behavior and after having been part of a unanimous vote for an extension of Goodell’s contract and advocate of some of the incentives for his pay, has become the fly in the ointment. His threats to sue the league got him booted off the compensation committee where he had been a nonvoting member and threatened with censure. He has masked his pique around Elliott’s suspension by claiming Goodell’s contract should be held up because of recent problems with decreased fan support for the league and the anthem mess, but Jones now only sounds like Trump trying to blame Clinton because he doesn’t want to deal with his Russian problem.

In a pure move modeled after his buddy, Trump, he has now gotten into a letter writing war with the other owners by claiming they agreed to an all-owners vote to review Goodell’s extension, while the committee has responded saying there is no such agreement and that the owners have already voted for the renewal. Jones also leveraged his 100 pizza franchises into a pizza war claiming that advertisers were losing money on the anthem controversy and allowing the other pizza companies to make fun of him by citing their soaring sales.

Additionally, and perhaps more revealing, Jones has now told ESPN according to the Times, “that Goodell had promised him that Elliott would not be suspended for his involvement in a domestic abuse case,” although Goodell’s spokespeople said there was no such commitment, so “when Goodell then suspended Elliott, Jones told colleagues he would seek revenge, the article said.” What a piece of work this guy is! The owners have threatened him with sanctions. They might should consider putting the team up for sale while it still has any fans outside of Dallas.

Meanwhile the terms of Goodell’s $30 to $40 million per year contract and extension for the nonprofit and Congressionally favored NFL have become grist for the mill at the same time as the reports of the NFL’s miserly record in meeting the terms of their $1 billion settlement over the effects of concussions on its players has also become public. Only 140 of 1400 claims have been honored, and most of those claims have not been fully paid. Parents are increasingly not allowing their children to play football, and efforts to offset the crisis are weak kneed. Football is being pushed from a popular sport to a place alongside guns, sexism, and red state politics, which will marginalize it, if not kill it, in the future.

The NFL might have better prospects with Jones just selling pizzas or whatever and Roger Goodell finding another job somewhere outside of football. But in a country reeling with division and inequity, watching the way billionaires and millionaires pad their own paychecks and ignore the issues of the day in their exclusive club, could also kill what’s left of its public support, as the fans realize it’s just about them, and never about us.

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