Wissot: Kneeling with Kap, standing for George
From the arrival of a single ship carrying 20 black slaves from Angola to Jamestown in 1619, through 246 years of legally sanctioned slavery, followed by 100 years of de jure (by law) and de facto (by fact) segregation, to the past 50 years of criminalization and incarceration, black people in America have suffered a tortured existence worthy of a ring in Dante’s “Inferno.”
Symbols have played an important part in the racial history of this country. The slave master’s whip symbolized the absolute dominance he commanded over the lives of human property that he was free to use and abuse as his whims dictated. The Ku Klux Klan’s white robes were symbols letting black people know that while President Abraham Lincoln had emancipated them, and the 13th Amendment had abolished their enslavement, they still lived under laws which segregated and humiliated them.
Today, symbols of the Confederacy are quickly being removed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Statues of Confederate politicians, generals and soldiers have been dismantled, some vandalized by angry protestors, in Portsmouth, Norfolk, Richmond and Alexandria, Virginia; Mobile, Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; and Louisville, Kentucky, Nashville, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, Florida. NASCAR has banned the displaying of the Confederate flag at race tracks.
To a diehard group in our country, these relics of slavery and oppression represent a mythical past that was “lost” with the defeat of the South in the Civil War. These people perceive the destruction of these venerated symbols as an affront to their history and their right to celebrate that “lost cause.”
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the statues and monuments were erected in the 20th century, decades after the Civil War ended. The statues of generals like Robert E. Lee were planted like trees throughout the South not to pay tribute to their valor in battle but to celebrate white supremacy and confirm the region’s refusal to grant social equality to blacks.
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On Sept.1, 2016, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the national anthem to symbolically protest the mistreatment of blacks by the police. It prompted public outrage and debate.
To many whites it was disrespectful to bring up issues of racial injustice while the nation’s anthem was being played. To many blacks, it was the perfect time to respectfully protest the country’s failure to address racial injustice while millions of Americans were tuned in to watch a Sunday football game.
The killing of George Floyd was a videoed street lynching in which a police officer’s knee served as a modern substitute for the rope and tree used by frenzied mobs to hang black people in the dark demonic past. Kap’s controversial decision to kneel in 2016 took on prophetic proportions as Americans across the racial divide witnessed in real-time how a knee could snuff out a black man’s life in less than nine minutes.
If and when the NFL season opens this fall, expect to see a vast majority of the league’s players, 70% of whom are black, take a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Expect to also see a sizable number of white fans in the stands follow suit. Whether that leads to fistfights between those who are standing and those who are kneeling remains to be seen. I hope not, but I also know it’s a possibility.
Personally, I would like to see more players and fans take a knee when the national anthem begins to be played and lift themselves to a standing position by its end — an unforgettable remembrance of what a police officer refused to do the day George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis.
Standing to praise what this country has accomplished and kneeling to protest what it hasn’t are patriotically compatible. I am reminded of the last words to the Pledge of Allegiance: “With liberty and justice for all.” Liberty for all. Justice for all. Not liberty for some. Not justice for some. Until that is achieved, kneeling for a better future that rectifies the injustices of the past is consistent with the highest ideals of the nation.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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