Call me a unicorn, but I have been outspoken about my criticism of NFL players refusing to stand for the national anthem, and I continue to believe that police brutality directed at African Americans is a serious problem.
Last summer, in the wake of the police killings of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and Philando Castile, I wrote a column outlining how video had changed my perception about the prevalence of police violence directed at African Americans. The piece made some waves―NPR had me on to discuss it, and Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro name-checked me on “This Week.”
Nothing that I have said or written about the NFL has changed my mind about this other serious problem. And this seems like a good time to reiterate the fact that there is, indeed, a problem. Ironically, I want just what Colin Kaepernick says he does from his protest: To help call attention to the problem of police abuse.
As someone who currently boycotts the NFL, I hope that I have a certain amount of credibility as this messenger. However, my credibility does not compare with that of U.S. Senator Tim Scott, a black Republican, who shared his personal experience last summer.
After recounting multiple times he was harassed by the police, the South Carolina Republican offered this advice on the Senate floor: “Recognize that just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of another, does not mean it does not exist. To ignore their struggles, our struggles, does not make them disappear, it simply leaves you blind and the American family very vulnerable. Some search so hard to explain away injustice that they are slowly wiping away who we are as a nation. But we must come together to fulfill what we all know is possible here: peace, love, and understanding. Fairness.”
“I don't think Tim Scott was making all of that up,” says Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces. “And if you don't think he would make that sort of thing up, you have to start considering the possibility that most of the other black and Latino people—NFL players or otherwise—who have had similar experiences are telling the truth, too.”
Around the same time I was writing about police abuses last year, conservative Leon Wolf posted something similar at RedState.com. It was a powerful post (you should read the whole thing), but arguably the most compelling admission was that, when it comes to police abuse, a lot of conservatives simply turn a blind eye. “A huge, overwhelming segment of America does not really give a damn what cops do in the course of maintaining order because they assume (probably correctly) that abuse at the hands of police will never happen to them,” Wolf wrote. “As long as the cops keep people away from my door,” the rationale goes, “they have my blessing handling ‘the thugs’ in whatever way they see fit.”
In the wake of the NFL controversy, I caught up with Wolf to get his take on the backlash. “The NFL protests have been one of the most harmful things to happen to the movement [to forge a consensus about police abuse], in my opinion,” he told me. “It's one thing for the players to say they aren't protesting the anthem or the flag itself, but it's pretty foolhardy of them to expect Joe Q. Public not to perceive it that way.”
Conservative reformers are frequently pushed in this unenviable position. Just as Barack Obama poisoned the well for advocates of conservative immigration reform to advance their cause by unilaterally issuing his DACA order, Kaepernick complicates matters for conservatives who have been pushing issues like criminal justice reform (which includes a myriad of systemic or structural issues, many of which unfairly and disproportionately affect the black community) for years.
The only way to affect significant change is to win the hearts and minds of a broad swath of Americans. You cannot reach consensus on an issue that excludes or repels a large chunk of the population.
To be sure, some people are simply not open to hearing the truth. “There are people who, for lack of a better word, ethnically identify as conservative or Christian, but don’t see it as a principle identifier, just a demographic one. And they are as tribal as many of their political opponents,” explains conservative Erick Erickson, author of the new book Before You Wake. “Because their opponents support taking a knee, they oppose it and because the other side is outraged by police brutality, they either don’t care or defend the police.”
These tribalists won’t easily be reached. But there are plenty of others who represent a more principled , less tribalistic, brand of conservatism. These folks might not cotton to NFL players who kneel, but they also shouldn’t be allowed to turn a blind eye to a very real problem that the NFL protests clumsily attempted to highlight. We shouldn’t let them forget about the problem.