It starts with Colin Kaepernick. The free-agent NFL quarterback came to the South Side of Chicago last Saturday to hold one of his Know Your Rights Camps: full-day youth seminars that Kaepernick organizes, funds, and emcees. Already staged in New York City and the Bay Area, with more cities to come, these are not open events for sports fans, the press, or random people. Their aim is to speak directly to black, brown, and economically disadvantaged youth, invited through local community organizations, about history, nutrition, legal rights, and financial literacy. As Kaepernick said to me, “Every city has grassroots resources. Our goal is to raise awareness about those resources and help young people access them to empower themselves and the people around them.”
It might start with Colin Kaepernick, but it doesn’t end with him. There is a young multiracial network of roughly 50 Know Your Rights volunteers. They have flown in from all over country to handle logistics at the event’s site, the DuSable Museum of African American History in Hyde Park. These are people like Kerem from Orange County who said, “This message is about equal rights. Often people in underserved communities don’t understand that they have these rights and they need to claim them…. Colin has sacrificed a lot to get to this point. It shows he is passionate about this and we all feed from that.”
Another volunteer, someone just hanging out in a Know Your Rights T-shirt, was Kaepernick’s San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid. “I came here to support Colin,” he said to me. “I want to show these kids that there are people who want them to succeed despite how they may feel when they go to school. But I also came here to learn.”
Reid also spoke about the last season of anthem protests, where he kneeled alongside Kaepernick. He explained in a quiet but proud voice, “All we wanted to do was expand the discussion. People were being killed by police and we wanted that recognized and discussed. And I think we accomplished that.”
The day started with breakfast: eggs, yogurt, biscuits, and fruit for the 200 young people who were at the door by 9:00 am. A 12-year-old named Daymien gave up the opening game of his baseball season to attend. “I wanted to play today, but I think this is more important,” he said. “I wanted to come here for knowledge and learn my history.” In addition to the breakfasts and lunches provided, young people were given T-shirts that read “Know Your Rights” on the front. On the back, the shirts listed the following 10 points:
- YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE FREE.
- YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE HEALTHY.
- YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE BRILLIANT.
- YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE SAFE.
- YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE LOVED.
- YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE COURAGEOUS.
- YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE ALIVE.
- YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE TRUSTED.
- YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE EDUCATED.
- YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW YOUR RIGHTS.
The free breakfasts and the 10 points both derive, intentionally, from the political legacy of the Black Panthers. I spoke with Ameer Loggins, a young writer and PhD candidate at Cal-Berkeley who helped develop the Know Your Rights curriculum as well as the ten-point plan. “This is an extension of the Freedom Schools of the civil-rights movement, the Panther schools, and all non-institutional educational programs that go out into the communities. The only difference is that we are mobile and we are associated with Colin, and that puts it on a different kind of platform.” As this camp was in Chicago, the particulars of the city’s history and policing were central to the agenda.
After breakfast Kaepernick introduced the day, saying, “We are here to uplift each other. We also have great speakers and guests who are here for no other reason than that they love you and they want to support you.”
He then brought out “one of the great men of Chicago,” hip-hop icon Common, who flew in just for the camp and stayed the entire six-hour day. Common said, “I’m honored to be here. I’m here because last September I saw Colin Kaepernick standing up for us as a people. I thought, ‘Man that’s one of the most courageous acts I’ve seen by someone in the spotlight since Muhammad Ali.’ I’ve always said that Muhammad Ali was one of my heroes, so now I have to say that Colin Kaepernick is one of my heroes. But it’s not just Colin now. He has a team. We have a team: The Know Your Rights team speaking about how we can exist not only to fight but to elevate and reach our goals and dreams…to go out there and be the kings and queens we were created to be. I want each and every one of you to know that we care and I want you to listen, ask questions and take notes today, and as then go out onto our city and spread the message for people who aren’t here.”
The first speaker was the aforementioned Ameer Loggins, who gave a college-level seminar on Chicago history, segregation, and structural racism. Loggins said, “Chicago is the most segregated city in the United States and no one talks about the effects of that in 2017. We talk about Selma and Jim Crow and the harm of segregation in the past but not the present. It’s not just segregation of space. It’s a segregation of resources and economics, food access, and property ownership…. Even if you say, ‘We had a black mayor, and Barack lives in Chicago,’ it doesn’t trickle down. People say we made it, but if our community doesn’t collectively benefit with resources, what the hell did we make it for?”
After going through the effects of 21st-century segregation—how it puts a person in a penned-in environment where they can be policed, subjected to violence, and denied resources—he made the argument that “young people just like you” made the civil-rights movement by “contesting segregated space,” and said, “You have the same power. Turn your segregated space into contested space. Don’t just sit there and take it. You don’t need to break windows. Arm yourself with enough knowledge and you can whip ass with your brain.”
It was rousing and, by my informal polling, a highlight for the students in attendance. One young woman said to me, “I wish my social-studies teacher was here taking notes.”
After Loggins, Kaepernick returned to the stage to underline the message, saying, “We are trying to show you what you are dealing with so you can combat it.” Then he introduced the next speakers. “We are now bringing out the legal defense team so you can protect yourselves, protect your family, protect your communities.”
Out came Guillermo Gutierrez and Charles Jones from First Defense Legal Aid, with the message that “Chicago is the false-confession capital of world.” To drive the point home, these “street attorneys” educated the students about Jon Burge, the South Side police officer and now convicted felon who tortured confessions out of more than 200 suspects between 1972 and 1991.
They said that the future of some people in the room could depend on knowing their rights when approached by law enforcement, and hammered home what to say if stopped by police. “First and foremost, you always have the right to ask, ‘Am I free to go?’ That is your constitutional right. If they say ‘no,’ you have the right to say, ‘I do not consent to be searched.’ If you don’t say those words, they can and will search you.”
Then they stressed, “Always remain silent. Call us. Have an attorney present. That is your right.”
Gutierrez and Jones made the students repeat their hotline number—1 (800) Law-Rep4—as well as promise to distribute cards with the number to family and friends.
Students asked about retaliation from police if they invoked these rights, concerned that they would be pegged as uncooperative. The First Defense Legal Aid performed skits to show not only how to resist any police coercion but also how to articulate their rights to minimize conflict.
Kaepernick came out and reinforced the point, saying, “So if an officer stops you, what do you say?” The students all said as one, “Am I free to go?’”
Then Kaepernick became an organizer—or the world’s chillest public-school administrator—dividing the students into breakout sessions that would cover “holistic health” and “financial literacy,” directing them into what rooms to go to by colored wrist-bands they received upon registration. He also said, “Remember, we have snacks that you can grab between sessions. But please, no eating in the auditorium.”
Yareli Quintana, a food consultant and spirited speaker, then took the stage to speak about making intelligent eating choices and how to take “baby steps” for healthier living. She made the case that food is self-determination and to integrate fruits and vegetables into their diets to better develop their minds. She even did a PowerPoint presentation about how different foods affect the brain. Kaepernick came up afterward and said, “we will have a resource map for you so you can find community gardens that grow their own healthy foods.”
The emphasis on healthy choices was evident throughout the day. One of the more harrowing moments came when radio host Ebro Darden asked the students, “How many of you have eaten fast food three times this week?” Almost the entire room raised their hands. Then he asked, “How many of you have members of your family with cancer or diabetes?” Again, almost the entire room raised their hands.
The talk of community gardens and, in the financial-literacy section, the importance of dressing and speaking in a professional manner, also produced a robust debate about whether it was realistic for these students to even find healthy food, save money, or dress a certain way, and whether those kinds of personal choices could beat back oppression. It was the century-old debate about what is known as “respectability politics”—whether racism needs to be fought systemically or by changing individual habits. Different speakers articulated different sides of this, with the students chiming in as well.
The substance of this discussion was perhaps less important than the fact that the dialogue was open, intense, but also friendly: a display for the young people in the audience of what debate looks like and how adults can disagree without being disagreeable. The students shaped this debate by speaking about their own experiences, what was realistic for them and what was not.
Kaepernick ended the day by speaking to the students about his own journey. He talked about growing up as the adopted son in an all-white home. He said, “I love my family to death. They’re the most amazing people I know. But when I looked in the mirror, I knew I was different. Learning what it meant to be an African man in America, not a black man but an African man, was critical for me. Through this knowledge, I was able to identify myself and my community differently…
“I thought I was from Milwaukee. I thought my ancestry started at slavery and I was taught in school that we were all supposed to be grateful just because we aren’t slaves. But what I was able to do was trace my ancestry and DNA lineage back to Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and saw my existence was more than just being a slave. It was as an African man. We had our own civilizations, and I want you to know how high the ceiling is for our people. I want you to know that our existence now is not normal. It’s oppressive. For me, identifying with Africa gave me a higher sense of who I was, knowing that we have a proud history and are all in this together.”
Then he took a deep breath and said, “This was so important for me and I want to share it with you. So when you leave, you are all getting backpacks, and inside of them are Ancestry DNA kits so you can trace your ancestry and connect with your lost relatives who may have taken this test as well.”
The students exploded with joy upon hearing this. I was told there was a similar reaction in Oakland and New York.
Then he said, “I love you guys. I appreciate you. Build with each other. Because you will be this community moving forward.”
Afterwards, I spoke to Kaepernick at some length. He is training every day for the 2017 season and, optimistic that his hard work and stellar 2016 season will be rewarded, believes that he will find an NFL home. But we kept the conversation focused on the camp.
“I thought it was amazing,” he said. “Every time we do an event, leading up to it, I’m always a little bit nervous. ‘Do we have everything in line? Are the Ts crossed and the Is dotted?’ But once the program starts running, you see the kids having fun and and absorbing what we are saying. That’s the win for us…to see them get the tools to navigate an oppressive society.”
He compared the Know Your Rights team to a football squad: “It’s the same sense of camaraderie. Building toward a common goal. And in this space we are trying to help communities that are oppressed. That’s what we want. We want to show that we can build with each other and love each other because in oppressed communities no one is going to help them but themselves. It’s so exciting to see it come together.” He then smiled so wide and looked so relaxed, I thought he would float to the ceiling. “It’s a very liberating thing to feel. It’s hard to explain.”
One thing we did not talk about was whether he was being politically blackballed by the league for his political ideas and activism. There was no need. After spending the day with Colin Kaepernick, all I could think about was a quote from Bill Russell in 1967 when he was asked about how Muhammad Ali was coping with being stripped of the heavyweight title. Russell said, “I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. I’m worried about the rest of us.”
I’m not worried about Colin Kaepernick. As for “the rest of us,” we’ve got work to do.