MLK of­fered les­son for NFL pro­test­ers

Woonsocket Call - - Opinion - Stephen Carter Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a pro­fes­sor of law at Yale Univer­sity and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice Thur­good Marshall.

The Na­tional Foot­ball League may yet back down from its re­ported plan to re­quire play­ers to stand for the na­tional an­them, and cer­tainly the sports press is apoplec­tic. My view is dif­fer­ent: I'm glad the league seems to be on the verge of press­ing the point.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not say­ing that the protest­ing play­ers are wrong or de­serve to be pun­ished. The prob­lem with the kneel­ing-and-sit­ting has been that they are not, let us say, ad­vanc­ing the ball. The play­ers in­sist that they are try­ing to make a point. Their de­fend­ers in­sist that they have the right to do so. But when the is­sue be­comes your right to dis­sent rather than what you're try­ing to say, your protest isn't work­ing.

Colin Kaeper­nick be­gan kneel­ing a year ago to make a state­ment about po­lice bru­tal­ity. Other play­ers have said that they are protest­ing racial in­equal­ity more gen­er­ally. Non­vi­o­lent ac­tion isn't the same as self-ex­pres­sion. Protest at its best should have a clear, ar­tic­u­la­ble pur­pose. It should also be de­signed to cre­ate a dis­rup­tive ten­sion that can be re­solved only by bring­ing the move­ment nearer to its goal.

By this stan­dard, the NFL protests have not been work­ing very well. Sportswrit­ers have been par­tic­u­larly com­plicit in this. By lec­tur­ing an­gry fans or grudg­ing own­ers about how the play­ers should not be crit­i­cized for peace­fully protest­ing, they are in ef­fect urg­ing that noth­ing about the game on the field should change. The play­ers should protest, and ev­ery­one should be­have as though they aren't, and the game should go on. In other words, the sportswrit­ers seem to think that fans or own­ers or politi­cians who dis­ap­prove are be­ing dis­rup­tive.

But this turns the tra­di­tional the­ory of protest on its head. The point of protest is dis­rup­tion. It is the play­ers who should be try­ing to pro­voke a larger re­sponse than a few boo­ing fans. In­stead, the NFL protest has be­come rem­i­nis­cent of the Al­bany Move­ment of 1961-62, re­garded by many his­to­ri­ans as a de­feat for Martin Luther King Jr. and the South­ern Chris­tian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence.

Here, the his­tory is in­struc­tive. When the SCLC came to Al­bany, Ge­or­gia, the chief of po­lice — a man named Lau­rie Pritch­ett — de­cided to avoid the traps that had en­snared his coun­ter­parts else­where in Dixie. Pritch­ett was a seg­re­ga­tion­ist, but a clever one. Al­bany would have no po­lice dogs, riot ba­tons, or fire hoses. In­stead, Pritch­ett would meet non­vi­o­lence with non­vi­o­lence. His of­fi­cers were care­fully trained to make ar­rests with min­i­mum force. He con­tacted nearby towns to bor­row their jails so that lo­cal cells were never over­flow­ing with pro­test­ers. The ar­rests po­lice made were for dis­turb­ing the peace, not for vi­o­lat­ing seg­re­ga­tion laws. When King him­self was jailed, draw­ing the na­tion's at­ten­tion to Al­bany, Pritch­ett ar­ranged for his bail to be paid promptly. The re­sult of all this ma­neu­ver­ing was a protest that gen­er­ated very lit­tle news — and a seg­re­gated town that changed very lit­tle. Pritch­ett, went the say­ing at the time, had killed the move­ment with kind­ness.

Kind­ness was a prob­lem. The SCLC had never un­der­stood non­vi­o­lent protest as sim­ply the ex­er­cise of the right to dis­sent — the goal was to force change. To reach that goal, the demon­stra­tions had to cre­ate suf­fi­cient ten­sion that the au­thor­i­ties would ul­ti­mately re­act with harsh­ness, and per­haps vi­o­lence. If no re­ac­tion was forth­com­ing, there were no chilling pho­to­graphs, no blar­ing head­lines — and no change.

That's what hap­pened in Al­bany, af­ter Pritch­ett flipped the script. The protests, wrote King bi­og­ra­pher David Lev­er­ing Lewis, "pained but did not se­ri­ously cripple the mer­chants." On top of that, the goals were amor­phous. The tac­tics were in­con­sis­tent. Although there were many ar­rests, the pro­test­ers never man­aged to pro­voke the harsh re­sponse that they had hoped for. As a re­sult, what had been planned as an in­tol­er­a­ble dis­rup­tion of busi­ness as usual be­came lit­tle more than a tol­er­a­ble ex­er­cise of self-ex­pres­sion.

Un­til now, the NFL has been re­ly­ing upon the Lau­rie Pritch­ett play­book. No an­them pro­test­ers have been pun­ished. Yes, lots of fans have been boo­ing, and calls on so­cial me­dia for a boy­cott of tele­vi­sion broad­casts have drawn some ad­her­ents, though ad­her­ents dis­agree over how many. But none of this has af­fected the game as played on the field. With the full com­plic­ity of sportswrit­ers and the league, the kneel­ing and sit­ting be­came a part of the back­ground — not in­tol­er­a­ble, not a dis­rup­tion, but sim­ply a hand­ful of acts of self-ex­pres­sion. Un­der this ap­proach, the game would go on, ev­ery­body would get paid, and the protests would change noth­ing be­cause noth­ing would be at stake.

Had Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump not weighed in, the league might have con­tin­ued in­def­i­nitely to kill the protests with kind­ness. In­stead, the own­ers plan next week to dis­cuss what mea­sures to take. I have no idea whether Trump has his fin­ger on the pulse of the zeit­geist in a way that the play­ers and their de­fend­ers (in­clud­ing me) do not. Polls are all over the place. But the pres­i­dent's un­fair and un­re­lent­ing crit­i­cism has smoked out the fact that many team own­ers are also un­happy. So maybe there will fi­nally be a re­sponse of some sort af­ter all. Strange though it may sound, that would be a step for­ward.

It's not that I want the play­ers to be pun­ished. I don't. I may feel dif­fer­ently about the an­them, but I un­der­stand and sup­port what they're try­ing to achieve. The trou­ble is, they have been un­able to move the ball for­ward. The protest isn't any nearer its goal. We need a se­ri­ous na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about race, but the play­ers aren't spark­ing one. In­stead, we're ar­gu­ing about tac­tics.

Now that the own­ers are show­ing signs that they might lis­ten to the pres­i­dent — now that there may be fines or sus­pen­sions in prospect — we might fi­nally get a real de­bate go­ing. Let's wait and see what hap­pens if a cou­ple of highly paid stars sit out a game or two. At that point, maybe we'll get the se­ri­ous de­bate that we need.

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