When Taking a Knee Becomes More

Sep 29, 2016

This week in Charlotte, North Carolina, Keith Lamont Scott became the 173rd black man to be shot dead by police in the United States. Scott’s death, which came at the heels of Terence Crutcher’s fatal shooting by police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, reignited the ongoing controversy surrounding the police’s use of deadly force against black men in America. Though Charlotte police maintain that Scott was armed and posed an imminent threat, others maintain that he did not have a weapon. If this storyline sounds familiar, it’s because the same situation has seemingly played out year after year, decade after decade in America. The names may change but the news reports seem to be an ongoing prologue where, in the end, those responsible are not held accountable. 

With three months left in 2016, we can be certain that this year in particular will be marked by both the ongoing violence against black men by law enforcement but also the many ways in which such atrocities have been protested.

Peaceful demonstrations have been marred and overtaken in the headlines by violent encounters with police and protestors suffering injuries but the dominant storyline across America has been the polarizing protest made by NFL player Colin Kaepernick who has chosen to “take a knee” during the national anthem instead of standing which is the routine practice. He isn’t flipping anyone the bird. He isn’t burning the flag. He isn’t scrolling through his cell-phone while the Star-Spangled Banner is playing. This is not an action designed to be disrespectful or contemptuous—this is, as Kaepernick has argued, a political objection. In some ways, his protest says “I cannot stand in support of a country that is doing my people harm.” Kaepernick, for his efforts, has been sent death threats and likened to modern day ISIS terrorists. And, as others have pointed out, Kaepernick is caught in an incredible double-bind here. If he says nothing, he’s criticized for not being a role model and speaking up about issues in his community. If he does say something (which he quite vocally has) he’s lampooned as an out-of-touch multi-millionaire who shouldn’t involve politics with sport.  

The response to Kaepernick is, perhaps, most telling of the current racial climate in America. The Heath Ledger Joker meme nearly writes itself here: Police kill over a hundred black men in a year and most of the world shrugs it off--video footage and eye-witness accounts in support of the victims be damned. One black athlete protests the killings and everyone loses their minds.

Some even argue that it’s not that Kaepernick is protesting that is the problem—it’s how he’s protesting which is proving so distasteful to many. To commit to such a belief essentially says “you’re not protesting the right way.” As has been the commonly used example in these discussions, if your home is engulfed in flames it is as if the only acceptable reaction would be to calmly dial the fire-department, wait on hold, make some chit-chat with the responder and then ask him politely to send a team out. When your home is on fire such an expectation is as unbelievable as it is insensitive.  

As an American living abroad, I regularly meet Chinese people who are interested in learning more about American culture and life in the states. When I encourage them to travel for vacation, the majority of the Chinese people I speak with are incredulous with fear—citing the rates of gun ownership and gun violence in America. Stereotype or not, many potential visitors are scared of being gunned down in America. But each time this issue comes up, I quite flatly tell them, “You’ll be safe in America. You aren’t a black man.”

That I find myself saying this with all seriousness is a kind of absurdity that is as troubling and infuriating as it is saddening.
“Taking a knee” in sports is a common gesture that happens when your teammate (or even someone from the other team) is injured and lays hurt. You take a knee to express your concern and worry about them as they are tended to by training staff and doctors. In this way, Kaepernick’s demonstration could not be more appropriate. The America that he undoubtedly loved at one time is in crisis and he is unwilling to stand until the violence stops and those responsible are held accountable. Part of loving something sometimes means confronting the ugly truths, difficult as that might be. To fail to do so would betray the senseless deaths of those like Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher.



About the Column

Luke Lee

Luke is a mental health counselor from Seattle, Washington in the United States. He moved to Suzhou in 2016 and currently works as the Psychological Counselor for international students at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. Though his current position consists of counseling students, Luke also enjoys working with couples, parents and families. Previously Luke worked in the Kurdish region of Iraq and in private practice in Seattle. In his spare time Luke enjoys cooking, meeting new people, playing board games and traveling to different countries.

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