Long before the Nike deal it was clear that Kaepernick’s politics were being subsumed by other forces pushing a weak soup of “diversity” and “free speech.”
“All the commercial achieved was the erasure of Black struggle under the banner of ‘diversity’ and the ‘American dream.’”
Dear Colin Kaepernick,
Since you initially sat out the national anthem over two years ago, I have stood by the position that your stand was just and your action principled. Hardline white supremacists were not alone in attacking you. The entire ruling circle in this country deemed your protest an insult to the mythical notion that the United States is an exceptional country. As you will see in my upcoming book with fellow Black Agenda Report contributor, Roberto Sirvent, the attacks you received were rooted in the myth of American exceptionalism and the defense of a system predicated upon an endless project of war, racism, and corporate plunder. And like others who have taken courageous stands against this system, the cost has been your career.
I can’t say that I am not disappointed in your decision to team up with the Nike corporation. It would be easy to call you a “sell out” and leave it at that. However, we at Black Agenda Report are serious about politics. There is no easy way out of the political struggle for radical and transformative change. Every individual decision comes with consequences and every individual action is influenced by existing conditions, both historical and contemporary. This letter is not just for you, but for the people who look up to you and who remain committed to your original cause.
“I can’t say that I am not disappointed in your decision to team up with the Nike corporation.”
Political conditions in the United States offer little alternative to the use of corporate branding and careerism to further political objectives. There are few, if any, viable political organizations independent of corporate patronage in the US capable of winning material gains for the people. However, criticism and self-criticism remain invaluable to the development of such organizations. Black Agenda Report, the publication I write for, is managed by activists and organizers on the Black Left. When BAR editors critique my work, I do my best to listen and correct myself each time. BAR has been the only publication to consistently oppose war, white supremacy, and capitalist exploitation even when it is carried out by Black leadership. This landed BAR in lonely territory during the Obama era and on the anti-Russian blacklist in the Trump era.
While writing for BAR, I closely followed your protest. I paid close attention to the reaction from all sides of the political spectrum. Right-wing forces called you ungrateful to a nation that paid you handsomely for your NFL services. These are the same forces currently burning Nike shoes out of racist spite. We cannot be fooled into thinking, however, that there were not many on the so-called liberal side of the spectrum who felt similarly to their right-wing brethren. You said you were protesting a flag and an anthem that represents the oppression of Black America. And the establishment, regardless of its political persuasion, hated you for it.
“BAR wound up in lonely territory during the Obama era and on the anti-Russian blacklist in the Trump era.”
All sides of the establishment despised you at that time because you challenged the mythology of American exceptionalism, which is the most prized ideological weapon of the oligarchic ruling class. Your criticism of the anthem and the flag not only targeted racism directly but also indirectly attacked US militarism. The NFL, like most professional sports leagues in the US, is a corporate-sponsored monument to militarism. They spend millions celebrating wars carried out by the trillion-dollar war machine. Your career was cut short to ensure that the interests of the corporate NFL ownership and the military industrial complex were protected.
After you were blacklisted from the NFL, your cause became white washed. Players, owners, and media pundits began to frame your protest as a fight for “free speech” against authoritarian Trump. Your career no longer mattered nor did the structural racism that had originally informed the protest. Kneeling during the anthem was now a crusade to “save” the US from “Trump’s America.” In a word, the anthem protest became one act of many in the theater of preserving the mythical exceptionalism of the United States.
“Players, owners, and media pundits began to frame your protest as a fight for ‘free speech’ against authoritarian Trump.”
Kneeling for the anthem is now a common practice in the NFL. Some players have maintained a principled stance and remain vocal opponents of the racist regime of mass incarceration. The grievance you filed with the union is ongoing and so is your work in the community. These are all good things However, it was clear before the Nike deal that your politics were beginning to become subsumed by the forces of the power structure.
Last year, you aligned your causewith a well-known child who has been used to promote US funding and military supportfor the destabilization of Syria. This indicated that either you were unaware or simply disinterested in the ruthless war waged by the US and its allies against that nation. The truth is that there simply is no time to waver or remain ignorant on the question of war and peace. Workers, especially Black people, continue to see a decline in their economic conditions while the US war machine gets fatter from US tax dollars and stolen resources abroad. The nation of Syria is embattled in a struggle to preserve its self-determination from the most violent and ruthless alliance of imperialists led by the United States. At any moment, the struggle to take back Idlibfrom foreign occupying forces could lead to a military confrontation between US and Russian forces.
“Kneeling during the anthem was now a crusade to ‘save’ the US from ‘Trump’s America.’”
I watched your Nike commercial and was struck that you found it principled to allow one of the most shallow and exploitative monopolies on the planet to sanitize your political message. The commercial made no mention of police violence against Black Americans nor did it mention racism at all. All the commercial achieved was the erasure of Black struggle under the banner of “diversity” and the “American dream.” You told viewers to “dream big,” yet the police are ending lives of young Black Americans all over the country nearly every day. Nike is destroying the dreams of workers all over the world through the imposition of low-wages and putrid working conditions.
It is one thing to defend your humanity from the violence of white racists, but another thing entirely to ignore the fact that your decision to team with Nike deserves condemnation. Movements are not defined by defense alone. Movements seize the time. They move people to change society. In the case of US imperialism, the only hope for humanity is the revolutionary overthrow of the system and the oligarchs that control it. Nike corporation is owned by such oligarchs and is part and parcel of the system of imperialism. Nike operates by the motive of profit alone and exploits athletics to enrich its shareholders and executives. No revolution or social movement has ever been born out of the good graces of a monopoly corporation.
“Nike is destroying the dreams of workers all over the world through the imposition of low-wages and putrid working conditions.”
Some athletes have taken political positions in recent years without selling their principles to a monopoly. Two that come to mind are Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Hodges, a laser accurate three-point shooter for the Chicago Bulls, attempted to organize a boycottof the NBA finals between the Bulls and the Lakers after the brutal police beating of Rodney King. Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson banded together against Hodges to prevent a boycott and the NBA ensured that his career would never be the same. Like you, Abdul-Rauf believed that the national anthem was a symbol of oppression and sat out numerous pre-game ceremonies in 1996. He was fined heavily by the NBA and ruthlessly attacked and threatened by racists and the media. Even though he worked out a settlement with the NBA, Abdul-Rauf never sold his protest to Nike or any other corporation and his career never recovered.
So where will you go from here? The US state apparatus will only become more and more repressive. Corporate endorsements cannot provide any relief for the millions of Black Americans terrorized, murdered, and incarcerated by the state. It won’t free the dozens of political prisoners encaged behind prisons walls due to their participation in the Black liberation movement and related movements of a generation ago. US imperialism continues to expand its trillion-dollar war chest to threaten global annihilation with Russia and China. It seeks to destabilize Syria and Iran. It won’t allow socialist countries like Cuba and the DPRK to exist in peace. Nike has no interest in allowing so-called “underdeveloped nations” to exercise the right of self-determination, economically or politically. And workers and poor people in the United States do not benefit from corporate endorsements.
“Even though he worked out a settlement with the NBA, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf never sold his protest to Nike or any other corporation and his career never recovered.”
These are issues that deserve urgent political attention. The system of US imperialism must be brought down. A new system must be built. While some may view your latest move to align with Nike as harmless, this is not reflective of the political reality of the current period. We have real heroes to free from prison and real heroes among the oppressed classes. It will be up to you to decide whether you want to stand for and with them or become a representative of “diversity” for the corporate oligarchs at the helm of the most monstrous social order in human history.
Danny Haiphong is an activist and journalist in the New York City area. He and Roberto Sirvent are co-authors of the forthcoming book entitled American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News- From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror (Skyhorse Publishing). He can be reached at [email protected]
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]