Jewish Journal

Not All Protests Created Equal

America was born and raised in protest. From the colonies that rebelled against the British monarchy in the 1770s to the fight for civil rights in the 1960s to the Women’s Marches of today, protest is a cherished American tradition. We have the freedom to speak out against injustice, and we like to use it.

But not all protests are created equal.

Take the ongoing controversy with the protesting athletes of the National Football League. It started in 2016 when Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, made media headlines by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem to protest police violence. Now, it’s become all the rage among a multitude of players, and the league has no clue how to handle it.

I’m really torn on this issue. On the one hand, what I love about sports is that it gives me a refuge from the seriousness of politics. It’s my getaway. After long days of worrying about peace in the Middle East and the effects of tax cuts, I can chill out and worry about how LeBron James will mesh with the young core of the Lakers or whether the Patriots’ Tom Brady can still be an MVP at 41.

At the same time, how can I not have empathy for athletes who want to effect change in society? How can I not respect their right to protest injustice?

What complicates the picture is impact: Does any of this work? How useful are gestures of protest during the playing of the national anthem? If anything, it seems to have triggered a backlash among fans who oppose the gestures, leading to a decline in attendance and television ratings. Protest, evidently, works both ways.

If you want a sports gesture with impact, look at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. America at the time was embroiled in the epic struggle for black civil rights. Heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. led freedom marches. Six months after King’s assassination, two African-American track-and-field athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, were on the Olympic podium to accept their medals. While the U.S. anthem played and with the eyes on the world on them, they each raised a fist in a black glove in solidarity with their oppressed brethren. It became an iconic image — an emblem of a troubled era.

At the same time, how can I not have empathy for athletes who want to effect change in society? How can I not respect their right to protest injustice?

This singular impact is missing with the NFL protests. What the protests have done, more than anything, is divide the country. Instead of drawing attention to an injustice, they have drawn attention to a gesture. The fact that NFL games will be played every week for the next five months only ensures that the gesture itself will remain the center of attention.

What will people talk about? They’ll talk about what the league should do, what the players should do, what the owners should do, what the fans should do, what the sponsors should do, what the union should do, etc. In other words, they’ll talk about anything except what America should do to correct injustice.

We can expect plenty of stories about which player made which gesture at which game, but not as many stories about which players initiated efforts to build bridges between local law enforcement and troubled neighborhoods.

Maybe one of the issues is that our era simply lacks the urgency and blatant injustice of the 1960s, when Jim Crow laws in the South prevented blacks from using the same public facilities as whites, live in many of the same towns or go to the same schools; when interracial marriage was illegal and many blacks couldn’t vote because they were unable to pass voter literacy tests.

It also doesn’t help when you use a weekly sporting event as an instrument of protest. Eventually, the gestures get stale. People forget what you’re protesting. You lose the cause; you lose the juice.

In any case, injustices in America clearly persist and protesters must find creative ways to make an impact.

Last Sunday, I spoke with my friend Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld as he was preparing to go to the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Washington, D.C. Not satisfied with just marching and protesting, he told me he would blow the shofar as hard as he could to “drown out the evil shrieks of the Nazis.”

What complicates the picture is impact: Does any of this work? How useful are gestures of protest during the playing of the national anthem?

I was so moved by his idea that we decided to post the story on the Journal website and disseminate it on social media. Just like the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos 50 years earlier, the rabbi had found a singular gesture to accentuate his message.

That is my wish for NFL players: Find a way to make a statement that will rally more people to your cause and put the focus on your mission. Just as watching football is a great American tradition, so is effecting real change.