In 1967, Muhammad Ali could not find work as a boxer. It was because of his politics, primarily his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War and his uncompromising condemnation of racism and militarism. In response to this, his fans and allies were not merely disappointed or discouraged. They demonstrated in rallies that spanned the globe from Europe to the Middle East to Houston, Texas.
In 2017, Colin Kaepernick has, as of this writing, not been able to find work in the National Football League. Even though the Super Bowl quarterback is coming off a bounce-back season where he threw 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, even though his coaches swear by his character and work ethic, and even though he has made clear that he is not asking for a big contract of a starting job, he has been subject to a badly obvious political blackballing. His great sin was, of course, to take his politics to the field, kneeling during the national anthem to protest racist police violence.
As with Ali, the people inspired not so much by his play but his politics chose to speak out. On Wednesday, around 60 people—almost entirely Black—rallied at the National Football League’s posh Park Avenue offices in New York to protest his pariah status. The event was called by 100 Suits for 100 Men, a community group that helps marginalized men and women with job opportunities, and people at the rally chanted “No Justice! No Peace!” as well as “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”
Not surprisingly, having such a protest was mocked on social media—people laughing about the idea that anyone would demonstrate for a football player’s job. But to the people present—people like William Bell, the father of Sean Bell who was killed by police the night before his wedding over a decade ago—this had nothing to do with sports. Mr. Bell said, “I’m here, before anybody asks, to support that young man. He did something that a lot of people couldn’t do, were afraid to do. He stood up. …I lost my son 10 years ago. His birthday was last week. He would have been 34. My son, my baby son. He was a young man that had a lot of potential. Baseball, football, whatever he could do. But he couldn’t make it. At 23. That’s why I support this young man. … I’m glad to see everyone out here. I’m just one person, just trying to survive. Because I lost and I don’t want to lose no more. Everyone here is young, and believe me, I want to see everyone survive past 23.”
Also present were anti-police brutality activists, people from Black Lives Matter chapters, and students who had attended Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camps, which aim to teach young people about health, financial literacy, and their legal rights when dealing with the police—basically how to navigate oppressive circumstances of poverty and segregation. Seventeen-year-old Nupol Kiazolu said to The Nation, “Colin Kaepernick put his career on the line for the greater good. It’s only right we all show up here to support him today. … The fact that he’s standing up for that is noble. For him to be criminalized for that is disgusting. I see what they’re trying to do, they’re trying to shut us up, they’re trying to shut the movement up. But we refuse to be silent. The NFL has so many black lives [on the field], but they don’t value them. They look at us as dollar signs, they don’t look us as human beings. We’re worth more than a dollar sign. I like football, but I’m not supporting any corporation or any league that doesn’t value the lives of my people. I’m for boycotting the NFL until Colin Kaepernick is put back on a team.”
Ten-year NBA veteran Etan Thomas was also present, reading a poem that took shots at institutionalized racism as well as black members of the sports media—Stephen A. Smith and Jason Whitlock were name-checked—who use their position to “conspire against us… sending us back to the depths of failure where dreams don’t glow in the dark.” Thomas just returned from his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He spent the preceding days grieving over the absence of justice accorded to Terence Crutcher, who was killed with his hands raised on camera by officer Betty Shelby. A jury found Officer Shelby not guilty, and she is back on the job with back pay. Etan closed his statement by saying, “Your desire to destroy us will never, ever stop us.”
The most important takeaway from the rally is that for the people out there in the middle of this posh neighborhood, with signs and bullhorns, this was not about sports as much as it is about solidarity. This was not about Colin Kaepernick and his rights as much as it is about Black life in general, and whether or not it’s valued by the NFL or by this country. It was about football about as much as the 1967 protests for Muhammad Ali were about the desire to see him fight Joe Frazer. This was about something greater than one individual. In other words, it was exactly what Colin Kaepernick—not to mention Muhammad Ali—would have loved to see. It was about not only knowing your rights but exercising them to tear a measure of justice out of Trump’s America.