Monday, September 5, 2016

On My Mind: Do the Right Thing, Colin Kaepernick

Last weekend I watched Spike Lee's monumental cinematic achievement Do the Right Thing for what I called "the umpteenth" time. Fact is, I'm not sure how many times I've seen it. I just know that it's my favorite film of all-time. If you've come across any other posts about the film you may remember it's a movie about the version of New York I grew up in that plays very close to reality. An already tense time and place is placed in a pressure cooker until there is an explosion. Both blame and justification can be assigned to people on all sides of the situation.

Essentially, Do the Right Thing is about the virtues and dangers of protest, and the need for it. Lee understands protest is a thing of beauty and ugliness. It's hard earned benefits come with heavy-handed consequences. That's the way it has always been. There are also multiple ways to do it. To help viewers to understand this, and partly because (I'm guessing) Lee isn't (or wasn't in 1989) completely sure which way he favors, he ends his movie with two quotes, one from each end of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s - Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. They are as follows:

"Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because is is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to covert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

"I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn't mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence." - Malcolm X

King's quote is clear. There is no place for violence in effective protest. It only begets more violence. If and when it ends it leaves us all damaged in irreparable ways. In short, love conquers all.

Malcolm X's quote is no less clear, but has often been portrayed as doing the one thing he explicitly says he doesn't: advocating violence as an aggressive form of protest. What Malcolm is really saying is he understands peaceful protest as a strategy, but does not understand the refusal to retaliate when violence is used by those being protested against to end it. Like the rest of America, he saw footage of whites using all sorts of heinous methods against blacks who, for the most part, refused to react in kind. There is certainly strength in such a tactic. He just didn't think it was very smart. What good is your protest if you all wind up dead?

At no time, does Malcolm X suggest just attacking white people as a way to get things changed. Still, to this day, many whites and his other detractors of any race think that's exactly what he said. Many of these people are so blindly patriotic they see him, and others who dare suggest turning the other cheek is not an effective strategy, as a threat to the United States. They either forget, or more likely, conveniently ignore the fact this is a country founded by violent means. The colonists we glorify as the founding fathers of our nation did something Malcolm X never suggested, and King was certainly against. They took up arms against their oppressors. Both before and after The American Revolution, they spread from one coast of The New World to the other by killing whatever natives were in their path. Within a century of gaining independence, the country could only keep itself together by turning their weapons on each other and beating half the country into submission.

From within all of that violence, we have culled great stories detailing the need for the colonists to go to war with Great Britain. The one that encompasses all of the smaller reasons you can come up with is the need for freedom. One of the most famous quotes is Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty, or give me death!" There may have been no more revolutionary words uttered. They were said during the embryonic stages of our nation. In other words, protesting is the most American thing you can do. It is how our nation was conceived and the right the founding fathers saw fit to preserve. This brings us to Colin Kaepernick.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." - Colin Kaepernick

If you live in America, and haven't been under a rock for the last few weeks, you know Kaepernick is an NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who decided to sit during the singing of The Star Spangled Banner at the beginning of games as a way of protesting the disproportionately violent treatment of African-Americans by the nation's police forces. He said as much in interviews the very first time he was asked about why he did not stand during the anthem. Yet, his words were largely ignored by certain segments of the population. He was immediately portrayed as disrespectful of the military, particularly those who lost their lives in defense of this country. I am a former US soldier. I served three years in the US Army and the thought of him disrespecting me or anyone I served with never crossed my mind. In fact, I see it as the opposite. He's honoring us by exercising the very right that sets us apart from those nations we depict as less enlightened. I can't speak for every soldier, sailor, marine, or airmen, but in my opinion, the military doesn't do what it does just so every American can stand with their hand over their heart while some singer warbles through the violence-glorifying song we've exalted to the level of holiness. We do it so Americans can continue to employ our freedom in all situations, even if that means speaking out against what we, ourselves, are doing wrong.

The Santa Clara Police Union does not understand this. They have threatened to stop working security at 49ers' home games unless the team "takes action" against Kaepernick. Just as Kaepernick has the right to sit during the anthem, they have the right to decide against working Niners' games. What they fail to realize, however, is that any action taken by the team against Kaepernick would be unconstitutional. It would infringe upon his rights whether his employers agree with his stance, or not. I don't fully blame them for feeling that way because it's difficult to hear that you and those in your chosen profession are having a finger pointed at you, even if there is just cause for that finger to be pointed. Police officers in Minnesota reacted immediately for the same reason during the summer when members of the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx wore T-shirts supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in protest of the same issue as Kaepernick. Officers there left the game they were working. They saw only hatred of their kind where there was none, and refused to acknowledge there is a problem. So far, management for both teams has wisely decided against disciplining players in either situation.

Personally, at least to this point, I do stand with my hand over my heart when at an event where The Star Spangled Banner is played. At the same time, I fully support Kaepernick's right to not stand and certainly his stated reason for taking such an action. A few months ago, I expressed my endless admiration of Muhammad Ali at the event of his passing for, among other things, the stances he took during his life. I am not one who thinks athletes have a duty to speak out on social issues. On the other hand, I respect when they do. Kaepernick is using the platform he has in hopes of creating productive dialogue about an unjust situation. Unfortunately, many have vilified him for it. They just don't get it.

More Things On My Mind:


  1. I love this post, Wendell! For so many reasons.

    It frustrates me that law enforcement and Black Lives Matter activists are polarized in this way. And being married to a police officer, I take it all somewhat personally, if you know what I mean. I think some of the blame lies with officers' resistance to acknowledging that black people are disproportionately affected by police violence. Then there are these nut jobs who invoke the "Black Lives Matter" slogan when calling for murdering police officers. Maybe stronger leadership is needed on both sides.

    I have no idea why people are so emotional over Colin Kaepernick. I'm not sure how I feel about his decision not to stand during the national anthem. But I wholeheartedly support his right to do it.

    This backlash against people who peacefully protest is helping no one. I sometimes hear this kind of thing from white people (I guess since I'm white, they think it's OK to say it in front of me? :-/) -- calling peaceful BLM protestors "thugs." Horrifically infuriating.

    1. Lots of good points, here. In particular, I agree that both sides need stronger leadership. That would help ease a whole lot of tension. Unfortunately, I don't really see it happening.

      As for Kaep, we react this way anytime we perceive someone as being disrespectful of the flag whether they have a valid point, or not. People forget there are no actual laws against anything he's doing and mistakenly think patriotism is the same thing as blind allegiance.

  2. I've become frustrated with this country and this patriotic bullshit about if you don't like America, then get out. It's like you're doing wrong if you don't say the Pledge of Allegiance or something like that. Yet, we're in a world where there's just too much bullshit going on and why would you put your hand in your heart for the national anthem knowing that not everything is alright? I support the troops and everything but we can't pretend to say that everything is alright knowing that there's bad cops killing people and that there's a presidential candidate who wants to exemplify the worst aspects of this country.

    1. Very well put. Couldn't have said it better, myself.

  3. Amazing post. I wonder if the people freaking out over Kaepernick stand with their hands over their hearts when they watch the game in their living rooms? No? Then shut up, if that's his way of taking a stance, let him. He's not hurting anyone. I went to school with a view Jehovah's Witnesses who never stood during the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. No one bothered them about. We asked "why" got an answer, and moved on.

    1. Thank you! I think saying 95% or better do not stand in their living room is an extremely conservative estimate. In this case, we (collectively) asked, got an answer, but refused to move on. It's ridiculous.

  4. I find the outrage about Kaepernick's protest to be sad, frustrating, and mildly amusing. Why amusing? Because people are upset that he's expressing the very freedoms that this country allegedly holds in such high esteem. The essence of free expression is the ability to refuse to do what everyone else is doing and, in this case, to peacefully protest something with which he disagrees.

    I don't take a lot of hard lines on things, but I do on this. The people who thing that Kaepernick needs to be disciplined for his actions should take a class in Constitutional law, or at least civics.

  5. Do The Right Thing was definitely an interesting film, although it's also one you have to see a few times to understand. I re-watched it for a class a couple months ago and saw a bunch of things I missed the first time. One thing I noticed was the significance of the heatwave, which was essential in illustrating the mounting tension over the course of the story.

    The big thing I wondered on my second viewing was if John Turturro's character was supposed to be a closeted homosexual. It would explain a lot of his insecurity and place his racist remarks in a new context (the old idea that bullies often act the way they do because of insecurity coming from being bullied themselves). This interpretation would also be supported by the scene where he leads his brother into a closet and almost rapes him. I'm not sure if that was Spike Lee's intention, but it adds a new dimension to a vety complex film.

    I actually hadn't heard about Kaepernick. Perhaps that's mainly because I'm not as knowledgeable in football, but there is definitely a lot of controversy going on right now.

    There was actually a recent incident in Toronto where a Pride March was actually stopped by a group of Black Lives Matter protestors. I don't have all the details but I can say that there were a bunch of different views. I wrote an essay for a class comparing two articles on it, one of which saw Black Lives Matter as a bunch of bullies who blow racial issues out of proportion to make demands. The other went into more detail on why things went the way they did, and argued that the two groups should work together.

    As I recall, the issue that got a lot of attention was the role of police in pride, for which there are different conflicting perspectives. Black Lives Matter issued a demand for police floats to be removed, while on the other side the role of police officers in pride has often been seen as a sign of progress in gay rights.

    1. Yes, the heatwave is a major catalyst for the story. Lee makes that clear right from the outset.

      That interpretation of Turturro's character never occurred to me. It's very interesting, but I don't think that's what Lee was getting at. I do agree he's a guy who bullies to keep from being bullied, or rather, because he gets bullied by others - his so-called friends in the neighborhood where they live.

      You not hearing about Kaepernick doesn't surprise me because I wouldn't think this was much of a story outside the states. Within the states, you can't escape it. It has dominated national news for a couple weeks.

      As a counter, I heard nothing about the Pride March. Without knowing anything about it, I hope the two groups can and do work together. In any event, it sounds like a fascinating subject. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.