Take a Knee, but Stay on Message


Let’s be clear, I’m on team take a knee.

In fact, taking a knee is the very least that can be done.

Unfortunately, the debate on whether or not one should take a knee, and under what conditions is sucking the oxygen away from the intended discourse on police brutality and its disproportionate impact on black communities. Furthermore, this is an intentional tactic of the right. Those concerned about social justice cannot allow themselves to be distracted from the state-condoned murders that inspired this activism to begin with.

Remember, when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee and set this debate on a slow boil he was doing so in order to make a specific statement. Kaepernick was motivated by his unwillingness to stand in deference to a song ostensibly written to honor the “land of the free” (with a nod to slavery, of course) when black men less fortunate than himself were subject to police abuse, exploitation, and even state-sanctioned murder. His expressed goal was to continue to kneel until his brothers were free to enter the public without concern that they might be snuffed out if they happen to be scary to a trigger happy police officer.

The facts remain on Kaepernick’s side despite conservative memes to the contrary. Blacks, and black men, in particular, are disproportionately victims of police violence at every level from physical, psychological and social coercion and manipulation, to physical assault and abuse, to murder. This is irrefutable. It is confirmed by every study that has ever honestly examined the matter. Only now, what academics and activists know to be true from decades of research, plays out on everyone’s computer screen as representatives of the state who butcher marginalized people are caught on video and uploaded to social media for all the world to see. Conservatives may be able to dodge the facts, but they cannot run away from the revealed lived experience and personal narratives being shouted throughout cyberspace.

So when they cannot avoid a barrage of facts, those who benefit by perpetuating the status quo and their conservative watchdogs erect shields and deflectors to shift the argument in a direction that they prefer.

They start rhetorically using two methods. First is by making pseudo-reasoned arguments against the weight of the evidence. Blacks are disproportionately victimized because they disproportionately commit more crimes or disproportionately resist arrest more. If “those people” would just keep their mouths shut and do what they are told, they won’t get shot–except when that doesn’t work…then it’s about how the police officer felt around a scary black guy.

Or, more white people are victimized by the police than are black people. Statistically true, but also statistically meaningless. Let’s put aside the obvious argument about whether anyone should be victimized by the POLICE. There’s no room in the conversation for that little distraction. Given that, in the United States, a percentage of the population will be victimized by the police, one would expect to see white people so victimized at a rate consistent with their presence in the population. We don’t see that. We see whites under-represented and blacks over-represented by about a factor of three. This disproportionate victimhood remains even when such things as resistance or criminality are controlled.

The second rhetorical strategy is to offer meaningless catchphrases in place of substantive argument. For instance, the claim that all lives matter. #Blacklivesmatter must be racist because they’re saying that black lives are more important than white lives. Um…no they’re not. BLM activists are basing their argument on the presumption that all lives matter. Yet, despite this value that everyone embraces, the facts referenced above indicate that in our society, black lives matter less…because they are disproportionately victimized by the police, among other forms of social victimization. If all lives matter, we shouldn’t see any victims of the police. And if black lives matter as much as white lives, we shouldn’t see disparities based on race. “All lives matter” is a meaningless truism.

What about “Blue Lives.” Police are killed, too, often by black suspects. Why don’t blue lives matter?

Well, they do. The difference is that blue lives are taken by criminals while the black lives in question are taken by…the police who are tasked with protecting them. And when a criminal is caught on video killing someone, especially a police officer, he’s going to prison and maybe even the needle1. When a police officer kills an unarmed black man…well…you know how scary “those people” are.

Yeah, but what about black on black crime? Why don’t “you people” do something about black on black crime.

Um…well…many do. Some people even try to do something about white on white crime…which is colloquially known as “crime.” You see, there’s nothing stopping people from speaking and acting on more than one issue.  Funny thing is, if black communities had better relationships with local police, maybe there would be fewer black on black crimes.

The best thing about these rhetorical arguments is the squishing sound they make when you squash them. Except for convincing the already converted to support racist policies and ignore the plight faced by people of color, the rhetorical arguments are useless. They make for some easy memes on social media. They give your conservative uncle something to complain about. As for their value as reasonable claims-making tools, they are worth little.

The second tactic, however, is somewhat more clever and often more effective. Deflection is the process by which a debate on a complex and difficult issue is turned into a debate on which the opposition feels more comfortable. In this case, a meaningful discourse on the abuses and limits of state power and accountability has been shifted into one of patriotism, of respecting the flags and, by extension, the troops. This shifted debate has all of the nutrients that the right feeds on.

Most importantly, however, the discursive momentum is diverted from the real issue to a more palatable and abstract debate. In this case, the momentum is diverted from attempts to deal with the very real and consequential abuse of state power against marginalized groups to a more nebulous First Amendment debate. In diverting the discourse, the energy is being drained from activism that could result in real policies limiting the power of police–policies antithetical to movements that privilege external methods of social control. Instead, we simply further a debate that we’ve been having for centuries and for which no substantive policy is likely to result.

And liberals fall for it. Let’s face it, many on the left, like myself, found ourselves becoming politically active because of First Amendment issues. For me it was Tipper Gore’s Parents’ Music Resource Center and her Filthy 15 that brought me into the political arena back in high school. It’s almost like a Pavlov dog response when someone is attacked for speaking their mind. After all, when Tim Tebow took a knee in homage to god, conservatives rallied around him in the face of criticism–as they should have. When it comes to Nazis gathering in defense of statues erected to memorialize Confederate Terrorists, the Right is all about the First Amendment. When it comes to protecting the Constitutional right to make derogatory statements about minorities and women, the Right rises up in the face of liberal “political correctness.”

So why not Kaepernick and athletes protesting state condoned murder?

Well, we all know why. Because conservatives are not about the “right” to speak. They stand for the power of dominant groups to assert their status through discourse. Those who confirm conservative orthodoxy can say what they want. Those who challenge the system should just shut up.

We know this. Nor is our confronting conservatives on this matter going to bear fruit.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t confront conservatives whey they challenge the right to free speech. That’s not to say we shouldn’t make a free speech argument. But when we cannot allow conservatives to deflect the actual issue. In this case, the free speech argument replaced the original context of the debate, and that was a shame.

Whenever we are confronted with conservative deflection strategies we must make it a point to punctuate every response with a return to the original issue.

In this case, when confronted based on some ridiculous notion of disrespect for the flag, our response should be, “it is not disrespectful to the flag to point out that the police, many of whom wear an American flag on their uniforms, are killing unarmed people.” When “the troops” are invoked in an attempt to silence us, we should respond, “did the troops sacrifice so that unarmed people could be shot on American streets at the hands of the police?”

There are plenty of ways to respond to the Right-Wing deflection while at the same time returning to the original debate.


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