Father James F. Keenan, SJ

Taking a knee

Thursday, November 9, 2017

For the past 20 years, I have been teaching a course at Boston College called “HIV/AIDS and Ethics.” It is an extraordinarily popular course made up of 50 fairly self-assured and very dedicated students. 

We examine research, drug trials, patenting and economic assistance, and we specifically consider the matter of human dignity and its relevance for certain populations more at risk than others. Above all, we study why HIV finds a way to certain groups of people, usually those most ignored or alienated in a society. We also look at its impact on gender, race and class. 

Several weeks ago, my students and I were going to have a conversation about race and HIV, and I decided to bring up Colin Kaepernick. Last year, the former NFL quarterback began kneeling during the National Anthem as a statement about police violence against people of color. Quite apart from his considerable capabilities on the field, Kaepernick has had a significant role in helping the nation think about how one can be critically loyal to one’s own country.

Of course, all my students had their own opinions, but over the course of our discussion they began to coalesce. Their comments became very focused: What exactly is Kaepernick’s posture? 

They noted that he started his protest by sitting. He was not standing with his fist raised, as Tommie Smith and John Carlos did at the 1968 Summer Olympics. His sitting was a refusal to stand, an expression of his sense that it felt wrong to stand, given the violence against African Americans committed by police officers, along with the mass incarceration of African Americans.

They noted that Kaepernick wanted to make sure that his protest was done with respect, and not merely in defiance. Much depended on his eventual decision to kneel, to genuflect, rather than to sit, during the anthem. This shift was significant, and by it Kaepernick became a household name as a man with a message. 

Despite the rebuke of some commentators and some fans, he brought the issue of the imprisonment and shooting of black people into the Sunday household.

Former Seattle Seahawks player Nate Boyer, who served as a Green Beret in U.S. military actions in both Afghanistan and Iraq, had initiated a conversation last year, by writing an open letter to Kaepernick. Boyer argued that sitting was too passive and therein disrespectful. 

Eventually they visited. This stirred Kaepernick to rethink what he was trying to express. He decided he would take a knee alongside his teammates, a gesture not unlike soldiers who take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, to show respect. 

As he wrote in the Sept. 25 New York Times, “we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” 

By finding a respectful, even reverent pose, he discovered a gesture that conveyed to my students a respect for tradition and a solidarity with those not adequately included.

Here at Boston College, about four weeks ago, there were some racist incidents of defacing signs and sending a very despicable Snapchat message. The African-American community at Boston College summoned us to take note. Racism comes from whites and we white people must address it.  

The incidents have become a terribly common occurrence at most universities. There is in American culture a new and disturbing permission to behave badly, even a permission for some to give voice to their racist beliefs. 

At Boston College we knew that this could not go unnoticed on our campus. There had to be a response. A protest march on a Friday at noon was launched. The response was extraordinary. At least 2,000 showed up: students, faculty, staff, administrators. The march wove through the campus, a show of solidarity with all victims of racial hatred. 

When the group arrived at the center of campus, the student leaders introduced the dean of students, Tom Mogan. The students, who respect him very much, wanted to convey their respect and their solidarity with those who had been victims of the racist actions. As Mogan’s name was called and he took to the platform, the entire student body took a knee. That gesture gave focus to the entire march.