“So, what do you think of Colin Kaepernick and his protest?”
Discussing hot-potato political issues with people we know can be iffy enough, especially with the unprecedented ugliness of the 2016 Presidential election, but with a stranger at the bus stop – well, you never know what might get you gunned down.
But my bus was running late and I was bored. What the hell, I thought. I’ll engage.
“I think he’s exercising his constitutional right to free speech to protest a problem that has needed attention for far too long,” I replied with a smile. I did not add that I am a Kap fan, being one of the #FortyNinerFaithful, which I don’t often mention in casual conversation seeing as how I live deep in Seahawks territory and all. Turned out that didn’t matter.
“But what about the flag?” he asked.
“What about it?” I replied cautiously.
“What about respect for the military, people who have fought and died for that flag?”
“I think the flag represents what we are – or what we aspire to be – as a nation. I don’t believe Kaepernick intended to disrespect the flag specifically, or the military. I think he was protesting a national standard of racism that is not in step with our constitution or the principles upon which this nation was founded.”
(By the way, I really do speak with correct grammar and impeccable eloquence in casual conversation. Okay, not really. I’m paraphrasing because writing should look good, and what I’m writing is the essence of what was said by both parties.)
“But what about veterans?” he pressed.
Ah, yes. “I read a blog post recently by Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station, a man who was career Navy, I believe, where he answered a question about what he thought about the subject as a veteran. [And you can read his entire, most excellent, post here.] He wrote about Kap’s constitutional right to protest what he sees as a societal injustice, and that he himself served for that right, along with anyone’s right to disagree.” Yep, I’m a diplomat.
“Well, I didn’t fight for anybody’s right to piss on the flag. I fought for that flag. “
OK. Fair enough. Your reasons for serving are your own, sir.
“And I bet that guy wasn’t a combat vet. Anybody who fought on the ground fought for the flag.”
I feared that was an overgeneralization, but what do I know? I let that pass.
“I’m from Cincinnati, ” he continued. “And I’m damned if I can find anybody who agrees with me about this. “
“Well, yes, ” I agreed. “Seattle is a pretty live-and-let-live place. “
“But Kaepernick has to feel like an idiot now. All that shit he stirred up for himself. “
I shrugged. “He’s a big boy, he can take it. He was probably counting on it. He’s a public figure, able to bring a lot of attention to a big problem through a visible and controversial action.”
“And now I hear the whole Seahawks team plans to protest the flag this Sunday. “
I shrugged again. I’m now pretty sure this guy isn’t incredibly perceptive to nuance, or shades of gray, or semantics.
“These football players don’t have any right to protest anyway. The NFL is very good to its blacks.”
I boggled a little. Its blacks. Like black athletes are the NFL’s pets or something.
“They need to protest Obama. He’s the one’s got all the blacks stirred up, police videos and whatnot.”
Okay, I’ve got a bona fide bigot here, proselytizing at me. I bet he’s voting for Trump, which is absolutely his right, but where the hell is my bus?
“Abuse of police power and unfair targeting of blacks has been going on forever,” I said. “What’s new are the cameras in everyone’s hands and the Internet to get the evidence out there. “
“But when some thug has robbed a store and is running –“
Yes, he said “thug,” which is pretty much the new n-word. And that’s when I started to get pissed. To which discussion of political and touchy social subjects will almost always lead. And I interrupted him. Fair’s fair. He started this whole thing by interrupting my solitary, minding-my-own-business-esque phone scrolling.
“Had he been convicted of that theft? Even if he was, is that an offense punishable by death? Is resisting arrest a capital offense? Did that officer have the authority to try him, convict him, sentence him, and execute him, right then and there? That’s another thing our constitution is supposed to guarantee – due process under the law.”
Aarrgh. No, I do not believe all cops are bigots. I worked hand-in-glove with many cops for many years, as a 911 dispatcher and as a criminal defense paralegal. I’ve seen first-hand how heroic and humanitarian many cops are, and I’ve also seen first-hand just how many are power-drunk national incidents waiting to happen. It’s alarming. And as usual, the bad ones taint the reputations of the good ones, but that doesn’t mean the bad ones shouldn’t be weeded out and disciplined appropriately.
The bus pulled up. Finally.
“Well, of course it’s a tragedy, but –“
Oh, shut up with the but. That sentence should not have a but. It’s a tragedy, and that’s only the start of what it is.
I greeted the driver, tapped my pass against the fare meter, and looked around. The bus was nearly empty. But my new friend was right behind me, still yakking. Instead of taking an empty seat I sat right next to someone else, so the guy couldn’t sit next to me. Enough is enough.
Sure enough, instead of sitting in an empty row, Mr. Flag sat next to someone else as well.
” So, what do you think of Colin Kaepernick and his protest?” I heard him ask the woman next to him. Oh God, poor lady.
But poor him, too. As he tried yet again to find someone who agrees that Kap is a subversive antipatriot who should be drummed out of the NFL, if not the country, I could hear desperation in his tone.
And I remembered when I first arrived in Seattle, what a fish out of water I was. Not for its liberalness, no – that was heaven for me, being a hippie peace freak at heart and coming here from a virtually 100% conservative, Christian, Caucasian community where President Obama didn’t even bother to campaign and I was regularly offended by openly voiced bigotry. This guy was a product of Cincinnati. I Googled “Cincinnati racism,” and the top three results were articles touting Cincinnati as the most racist city in America. Shudder.
No wonder he sounded so lost. It wasn’t just a change of scenery, of learning new streets and local ordinances. His entire worldview was being challenged on a daily basis. Seattle does not have ghettos as ghettos are generally defined, but even the poorest neighborhoods are pretty racially integrated, which is atypical. Everywhere you go around here, you see black skin and Asian skin and Indian skin, hijabs and yarmulkes and saris and skinny jeans and yoga pants and Northface gear, often in surprising combinations. Seattle rings with the music of a dozen languages. I love it.
I remember when I’d just arrived in Seattle, like the Country Mouse come to the Big City, just set my suitcase on the sidewalk and looking around in dazed confusion. It wasn’t the politics or social attitudes (“As long as you’re a Democrat we’ll like you just fine” one of my new co-workers had told me). It was learning city ways in general, on top of figuring out what street I lived on, public transportation, recycling (Seattleites will give you the hairy eyeball if you drop a recyclable or a compostable into the landfill bin), and umbrella etiquette – what are you supposed to do with the sopping wet thing anyway, just let it drip all over people’s carpets? (I found a lovely lambskin handbag, with a separate lined umbrella pocket, in a second-hand shop for eight bucks – score! )
This man had it so much worse. What was probably a lifetime of brainwashing – because hatred and exclusion are not inherent – was being challenged on a daily basis. Racial tolerance, support for the homeless population, marriage equality before SCOTUS said so, legal marijuana – Washington is the new California when it comes to making legal moves to accept and grant equality to all people, with all their wild and crazy shit, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else. For someone with rather, can I say backward, views on this stuff, it has to be pretty damned lonely. I believe in challenging archaic attitudes, which is why I continued the conversation with Mr Flag as long as I did, but even as I cut him off, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him. It can’t be easy to suddenly find yourself surrounded by people who think your life-long worldview is ugly.
To look at it from his point of view – which is what compassion requires – is to see that people he has been taught are inferior and frightening and sub-human are straining to take away something he believes he’s had his whole life – his superiority. People of color have had enough, and rightfully so, but even worse, some white people are not only accepting and even encouraging that frightening rise of the unimaginable, they are condemning this man with looks and words when he tries to keep things as he is used to them, as he has been taught to believe they are supposed to be. And the learning is real.
I’ve never been an outright bigot, but I’ve been as guilty of unintentional racism as anyone else. I’ve subconsciously bought into the propaganda, before I learned critical thinking, to question authority and the status quo. I like to think the majority of white people are good people, who believe in equality as a desirable principle and who, when they think about it consciously, believe people are people, no matter their skin color. But that is what is so insidious about racism in this country – it is underneath, built into all the policies we deal with and the ways people of color are portrayed by the media, the way they are treated by law enforcement, by financial institutions, by education, by health care, by employment practices, by the “it’s-just-a-joke” jokes. Sometimes it’s not so subtle, as with the Red Cross poster that showed all the rule-breaking children as non-white, or the police department that uses targets with black people as the bad guys for their officers to target shoot. We absorb that stuff subliminally, and it doesn’t matter whether we have “good friends” who are black or Hispanic or Indian or Asian. When that has to compete against what the news and entertainment media and political rhetoric saturate us with, it’s not enough. The racism is still there, and it runs deep in the body of this nation, on a molecular level. Literally. Our brains have become hard-wired to it.
I remembered the day I figured out that “I don’t see color” is actually pretty dismissive and unintentionally bigoted (and don’t get me started on “White Pride” or #AllLivesMatter), and cringed at how many times I’d spouted that to my non-white friends and acquaintances – and how they generously tolerated my ignorance. Or maybe they tried to gently educate me, and I was too oblivious to get it. It’s entirely possible. And I’m sure I still do it without even knowing it. Every time I catch myself, I cringe all over again.
I think any action, short of violence, that draws attention is a valid one. Sometimes it comes down to ramming it down people’s throats. Perhaps Krystal Lake made an error in judgment by wearing her “America Was Never Great” hat to work, but when it comes to institutionalized racism and misogyny, that statement is absolutely true. This is how things change, by stirring them up. It’s not easy to train people to think differently from how they’ve been taught to think their whole lives. Along with stirring the pot, we have to educate, to foster awareness, to promote compassion from a place others can understand. We do this one person at a time, with the millions in mind. We openly challenge a status quo that still, decades after it was outlawed, holds racist beliefs nestled close within its very infrastructure, and by creating such a furor that maybe, just maybe, one or two or even a few hundred might start to get it. It’s not easy. It takes guts.
Meanwhile, Mr. Flag was now loudly castigating the entire Seahawks football team. The woman next to him heaved an exasperated sigh, put in earbuds, and stuck her face in a book. After another few minutes of futilely seeking agreement (kinda fruitless in a city that bleeds blue and green, no matter the political issue involved) and countless dirty looks, Mr. Flag finally subsided into sullen silence.
Compassion. We teach best not with fists or angry harangues, but by making calm, reasoned statements and setting a visible example. We work to change our laws and enforce the ones we already have. We change our use of language, our media depictions and our popular representations. We hold on to our patience. We remember that change is damned hard and we keep working at it. We stand up and march, or we lie down and close a highway. We shut out a loudmouth on the bus.
Or we take a knee.