For most people outside the US, the name Colin Kaepernick was until quite recently completely unknown. However, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers has become an international household name since he refused “to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color” in August of last year. His protest, in the form of kneeling, known as “taking the knee” when the national anthem is played before games, has since been emulated by other sports figures from football league the NFL, basketball league the NBA, and sometimes by entire teams. The support of this protest has intensified since Trump entered into the fray in his typical manner, providing the match (or tweet) whenever there is a combustible situation.
For these protesting athletes, their act of kneeling during the national anthem and in front of the American flag is their way of exercising a fundamental democratic right of remonstrating against police brutality and other injustices against black people. Statistics coming from the US indicate that African-Americans are the worst off in society, with some disturbing figures to demonstrate this. Considerably fewer African-Americans hold university degrees in proportion to the rest of the population, they have higher levels of unemployment, and African-Americans make up nearly a third of inmates in prisons.
Kneeling during the national anthem might be controversial, and is definitely not universally endorsed as a means of protest. However, it is a legitimate act in a free society and is effective in highlighting one of the major issues that threaten the cohesion of American society. But, as we unfortunately have become accustomed to with Trump, he says exactly the wrong things, which exacerbate an already very tense situation.
In a campaign rally in Alabama, in a vitriolic verbal outpouring, he called for NFL players to be fired for kneeling during the national anthem. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get (him) off the field right now…’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it (but) they’ll be the most popular person in this country.” Knowing what these athletes are protesting against, it is hard to see his inflammatory language as anything but a deliberate attempt to sow divisions within American society along ethnic lines for his own political gain. If this was not enough, Trump also canceled a visit to the White House by NBA champions the Golden State Warriors through a tweet after one of their star players, Stephen Curry, expressed his doubts as to whether it was appropriate for his team to carry on with the tradition of NBA champions visiting the White House, considering the president’s approach to race relations. Instead of diffusing the row, he provoked even more acrimony by canceling the visit.
Those are not isolated incidents but a reflection of someone who may seem to have a questionable agenda. For instance, North Korea, Venezuela and Chad were cunningly added to the travel ban list, which previously included only countries with vast Muslim majorities. This is supposed to make it more palatable for the courts in the US, which had already rejected Trump’s attempted ban on two previous occasions due to obvious discrimination against people of one specific religion. It may now be more difficult to challenge this policy in court, but in reality it represents a distinction without a difference. There isn’t exactly an influx of visitors from North Korea queuing at the gates of the US and Venezuela is an obvious target, but neither of them presents a danger to the US through migration.
Ordinary Americans may soon be unable to recognize their country unless they stand up to the social media outbursts and incendiary policies.
Similarly, playing with the future of 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children, otherwise known as Dreamers, originating mainly from Latin America, is aimed at galvanizing his xenophobic credentials. It creates needless uncertainty around a program that was devised by the Obama administration to enable them to stay for at least a limited time. Once again, promoting anti-immigration policy comes at the price of victimizing a very vulnerable group in society that has committed no offense.
Sadly, this is the face of the US under President Trump. If Congress, civil society and ordinary people won’t stand up against the road he is taking them down, they might not recognize their country come the next election.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg