Monday 21 October 2019

Neil Francis: Under siege US black community conned again - Kaepernick has sold his principles

Colin Kaepernick’s face is now plastered across billboards for a Nike campaign. Photo: Getty Images
Colin Kaepernick’s face is now plastered across billboards for a Nike campaign. Photo: Getty Images
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It is a few weeks before the start of a Five Nations Championship and I am stuck at a red light at the junction of Alfie Byrne Road and Clontarf Road.

It is after 1.0 in the morning and my then girlfriend, now wife, is in the passenger seat. She is asleep - proof positive that I am not riveting company all of the time. Traffic stops on Clontarf Road and my missus' head rolls to the side just as I am about to get into gear. I crunch the gearbox and the engine stalls. It takes about three seconds to re-engage and restart the car. My last ever thought could have been, 'will someone beep me for stalling the car?' There was no one behind me. Small mercies, I thought.

Turning right, I was half-way across the road when the four horsemen of the apocalypse ghosted by. It was hard to gauge, but they must have been doing over 130mph on the wrong side of the road through a red light. The three-second delay on the clutch was the only thing between us and a collision you would have heard all the way to the Liffey.

No-one could have survived what would have been a catastrophic head-on collision. As a rugby international at the time, the deaths would have been front page news, although some of my friends in the press may have taken their own angle on the event, 'Francis responsible for deaths of joy riders!'

The car missed us by half a metre. Proximity to violence sometimes plays tricks on your mind, so my eyes told me that there were four people in the car, but the colour of the car, its make and model, eluded me.

I pulled in a few hundred metres up the road and I'm pretty sure I saw John F Kennedy's Dallas motorcade following the boys. It was as close as I have come to a violent death . . . that I know of.

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All the way home I speculated: Who were they? What had they been doing and how could they hold lives so cheaply? Joyriders . . . drunk or drug addled? Hardened criminals stealing a car or coming from a hit? My thoughts wavered as the sound of wailing sirens echoed through the city. Unarmed Garda Síochána in pursuit. You wonder how do they chase these mutants down? How do they apprehend them without loss of life or serious injury? What happens if the occupants are heavily armed? What would the collateral damage be? If apprehended, how long before they get out again?

Our streets are the wild west. Our guardians of the peace are watched over, hawk-like, by our moral police. How would you apprehend them? Would you take them into custody without a violent struggle? These people don't play by any rules. How does it feel to have to put your life on the line day in day out? Bad people hold no values.

I slept soundly that night. Perversely, a brush with death paled in comparison to the prospect of taking on the French in Paris later that month.

Not long before this episode, on the evening of March 3, 1991, but 8,300km away in Los Angeles, Rodney King made a decision that would make America burn.

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Rodney King speaks during a signing of his book 'The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption' in New York in April this year. Photo: Reuters

King was a feckless and casual criminal. He had already done time for assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated robbery in a petrol station. He had also beaten his wife and a number of girlfriends to a pulp. When you are 6' 4" and 240 pounds, an alcoholic and a drug abuser, the casual manner in which you commit such crimes must barely cost a second thought. Rodney King had no redeeming features. It was of no consequence to him that he was a danger to himself but he was, unfortunately, a danger to others. He was a bad man with no values.

On that day in 1991, King had been drinking with his buddies Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms and in the late evening they decided to cruise in King's car. King had been released early from jail but was still on probation. He was heavily intoxicated. He could have called it a night and went to bed, but he chose instead to break his parole conditions, get into his car and drive around in a state of reckless abandon. When you have no sense of values, bad choices don't appear to be bad choices because you genuinely don't know any better. King's decision would have catastrophic consequences for many.

King was observed driving erratically and over the speed limit and was spotted by an LAPD patrol car. A chase ensued. King drove for close to 10 miles, breaking red lights and driving at speeds of up to 120mph through residential areas. Eventually, with the assistance of five squad cars and a police helicopter, his car was brought to a halt. It was a miracle that no one was killed. The wider world may or may not have been aware of why he had been arrested that night.

Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest gained little notice until he changed his stance to kneeling. Photo: Getty Images
Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest gained little notice until he changed his stance to kneeling. Photo: Getty Images

Helms and Allen complied with the police instructions to get out of the car and lie in the prone position. King refused to decamp; he was incoherent, became aggressive, and resisted arrest. The rest is history.

George Holiday's video of four LAPD officers beating King with their batons became a worldwide sensation. The officers in question had sworn an oath, the badge they wore was a pledge from the LAPD "to protect and serve". That not only means protecting and serving the vulnerable bystanders in harm's way of King's maniacal and grossly irresponsible driving, but also King and his friends. The police at the scene were also duty-bound to protect and serve their own colleagues.

What happened at the scene was disturbing. King was brutally subdued, but the question will always be the same: In a gun society and in a highly charged situation where lives were needlessly put at risk, how would you behave in the heat of the moment? By the book I am sure. The officers in this case did not.

If the occupants of the car had been white it would have been a common-or-garden case of police brutality. When the four officers were subsequently acquitted, civil war broke out.

King, a worthless casual criminal, had unwittingly started a race war and 63 people were murdered in riots in LA after the acquittal. The TV pictures of these murders are many, many times more horrible than King's brutalisation. Looting, anarchy and violence overtook the city and the National Guard and the Army were called in to keep the peace; 2,400 people were maimed or badly injured; 7,000 businesses and homes were burned.

The financial cost of the riots ran into billions - the human cost was inestimable.

Two things happened in the middle of all this. Freddie Helms died in a car crash. The car was driven at twice the speed limit and all the occupants were many times over the blood/alcohol limit. Helms, who upheld his flagrant disregard for civilised order and the law, went to his grave wearing that badge.

And, at the height of the riots, King was brought before the media to try and bring calm to the situation. King had become an unwitting and accidental catalyst and icon for the struggle against the oppression of black people in the United States. The black community had put their hope in this man, many saw him as someone who could tell the world of their daily struggle in America.

King made his 'can't we all get along' speech in front of the world's media and the greatest fears of the black community were realised. King was addled. In a rambling, meandering diatribe, he demonstrated that he was an empty vessel devoid of any value or pride in his own people. He copper-fastened the stereotype of the black man in America in two minutes, a stereotype that the black community has railed against for generations.

King picked up $3.8m in damages from the City of Los Angeles and spent the rest of his life meandering through a series of felonies and misdemeanours, all of which he got away with because the LAPD was petrified of bringing him to jail or court. He intentionally ran over his wife in his car while intoxicated following a domestic assault.

King drowned after falling into his swimming pool in 2012. The toxicology report showed strong levels of alcohol, cocaine, pcp and marijuana in his system.

The black community would have to wait a while for somebody they could actually trust to represent them in their continuous battle.

In 2013, Colin Kaepernick was Super Bowl quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Nobody, including Kaepernick himself, was certain of his credentials. In the 2016 pre-season, Kaepernick was seen sitting in his chair while the American national anthem was played. It gained little notice until he changed his stance to kneeling and a couple of his team-mates joined in. Soon the whole league was at it. His action polarised opinion and caused deep divisions between black and white.

colin kaepernick.jpg
American footballer Colin Kaepernick

As anyone who has attended an NFL game can testify, it is a very nationalistic event and the anthem is an integral part of proceedings. It is always sung with emotional fervour. The military are also indelibly incorporated in proceedings on the field. To sit down or kneel in the middle of the anthem, irrespective of your race or politics, is seen as a fairly egregious lack of respect. You better have a good reason for doing it. We all know how big the protest became, but did we ask the right questions about Kaepernick's motives and, more importantly, where has this little episode gone to?

The 2013 Super Bowl was called the Harbaugh Bowl because both head coaches were brothers. John (Baltimore Ravens) and Jim (San Francisco 49ers) setting a unique record. The older brother John got the win, 34-31.

Kaepernick did not have his best game, but nearly nicked it in the end after a late rally by the 49ers, who had been down 28-6 in the third quarter.

Alicia Keys sang the national anthem that night and it was interesting to note that when the camera panned to Kaepernick on the sideline, he was upright and respectful. The camera immediately panned to a shot of 20 American soldiers standing to attention in Camp Courage in Kabul, Afghanistan. There was a huge roar from the Superdome in New Orleans as the television pictures appeared. Here were our girls and boys, serving in foreign fields, singing our anthem. That point was lost on nobody in the stadium, including Kaepernick.

There were more black men shot dead by police in 2013 than in 2016 when Kaepernick began his protests. There were also more white men killed by policemen in 2013 than in 2016.

There were a number of high profile killings of black men in the lead-up to the 2016 protests - notably Trayvon Martin in Florida and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. There were riots in Ferguson and a strong police presence had to quell a surge of violence. Brown had robbed a grocery store in the town, was intercepted by police, resisted arrest, fought with the arresting officer and ended up being shot dead. A depressingly familiar story.

In that year there were 17,250 homicides in America - 48 per cent were white, 45 per cent were black - disproportionate given that African Americans equate to 12.4 per cent of the population (38 million). Another disproportionate ratio is that African Americans make up 40 per cent of the prison population. America is such a polarised country that the vast majority of murdered black people are killed by blacks and the vast majority of murdered white people are killed by whites. Each kills their own.

In 2016, police killed 261 black people and 508 white people - disproportionate again but the bottom line is that criminals in a gun society will, in any year, end up being killed by police whether they are black or white. A postscript to all of the killings is that there are about 120 police officers killed in the line of duty every year. In a gun society, your life is at risk every time you clip that badge on your shirt.

When questioned on his stance, Kaepernick said: "I'm not going to stand up and show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

An honourable stance, but why now and, more importantly, why him?

When Kaepernick burst on to the scene, his impetus brought the struggling 49er franchise back into the limelight, where they belonged. Kaepernick was a good passer, but it was his rushing and scrambling ability which got him noticed. He got his team to the Super Bowl but fell at the final hurdle. Intelligent and articulate, Kaepernick was good copy, but there was an edge to him that would materialise later.

As his performances deteriorated, Kaepernick repeatedly displayed boorish behaviour on and off the field. As a franchise quarterback, you have responsibilities commensurate with your station and, more importantly, with the enormous salary you earn.

Kaepernick appeared on his Instagram account wearing a Miami Dolphins hat. He took it down on instruction but posted another picture a week later. It was deliberate disobedience that begged the question, why goad your employers and fans?

Kaepernick's behaviour became more and more sullen and sour. He picked up fines for disobeying team or NFL laws, simple things like wearing headphones from the unofficial suppliers, fighting with his team-mates, loutish behaviour with his opponents.

He became a divisive element in the squad. His team-mates described him as 'an island' and he showed a strong sense of disaffection. The incidents and fines kept coming as he became anti-establishment. Nobody can say what brought it on, but when Jim Harbaugh left to go to Michigan it was the beginning of the end. In the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Kaepernick had an abysmal record and was no longer considered their starter. When the kneeling started, that was the end.

In an era when NFL teams put private detectives on potential first-round draft picks to see if the player hangs with the wrong people, takes drugs, has family or girlfriend issues, likes to party too much . . . You get the sense that teams want their players to have no outside distractions.

In 2014 the 49ers gave Kaepernick a $126m six-year contract. For that sort of money it is expected that you spend every waking moment trying to become a better player, a team player, a franchise man. For that sort of dough you concentrate 100 per cent on the football. You are there to play.

My view on Kaepernick is that his actions were those of a dilettante. The protest was sparked by his disaffection and he was quite happy to pull a pin out of the grenade and see what happened. I don't believe he envisaged how widespread and divisive his protest would become.

Did he consider the consequences of staging a political protest on the sidelines of a football game? He is intelligent enough and fully aware of what the reaction of the vast majority of people would be. The fans at the match, the people watching on television, the NFL and even his employers. Sure, it was a brave and even justifiable thing to do - but on your own time and out of season, not in your uniform in a football stadium when you are being paid an obscene amount of money to be the best on any given Sunday. Nothing else.

Kaepernick's dissent was quickly picked up. A dozen of his team-mates started kneeling and on the opposition touchline they kneeled too. Suddenly it was not about the football, the emphasis was somewhere else. The crowd booed the kneeling players, fans switched off their TVs and it became a circus. Some players in the NFL spend half an hour a day training their eyes so that they can improve their peripheral vision in order to have a better chance of catching a ball thrown from behind them. That is the level of minute preparation required.

Suddenly black players were having meetings about what they were going to do before kick-off and whether their white colleagues should be part of it. If you were a head coach then you had a serious problem on your hands.

Kaepernick had his reasons for doing what he did, although in my opinion, selfish dissent was a large part of it, and unfortunately others in the league ran with him. Protest, particularly peaceful protest, is healthy, but in your own time.

San Francisco cut him and no one picked him up. "You here to throw the ball or here for something else?" Steve Bisciotti, the owner of the Baltimore Ravens, enquired about his availability and he consulted with his team, his fans, his sponsors and community leaders (black and white). They unanimously rejected him. The players didn't like him and didn't want him.

Kaepernick may have curried favour with a portion of the black community, but the NFL family did not want to know. He was now free to protest to his heart's content on his own time and on his own money.

What followed were awards, platitudes, carefully chosen interviews and talk shows, and then the inevitable. 'Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,' read the Nike headline. It is a great line, but is something a marketing department drew up to go with their latest advertising campaign.

Kaepernick sold out to a sports company so that they could sell more sneakers. He sold out any principles or values he had by putting his alleged beliefs and core values on sale to consumerism. Even if he had been paid nothing for the ad, how can you reconcile the two? A campaign for social justice and your soul is tacked to a noticeboard or a television so that you can sell more Nike product. This is the best form of advertising: a cause, a movement, an energy of disaffection - harness that and you have a winner. People will talk and people will buy.

Colin Kaepernick is a very different class of person to Rodney King, but that does not mean that the sense of disappointment in him is any less difficult to take. There is raising awareness and then there is taking advantage of it for financial gain. They are not are compatible.

The black community was looking for a ray of light, but got conned again.

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