‘Just because we all wear a uniform doesn’t mean we all think alike’
A look at black military veterans and police officers and their views on the NFL player protests during the national anthem
Sonia Y.W. Pruitt was tired and fighting a cold, but she wasn’t having it. After a colleague informed her that another police organization had blasted Nike for featuring Colin Kaepernick in its new national advertising campaign in early September, she perked up and pushed back.
Pruitt, the national chairwoman of the National Black Police Association and a police lieutenant in Maryland, wrote a letter stating that her group stood with the activist quarterback, who a little more than two years ago ignited an ongoing national dialogue by protesting during the national anthem to shine a light on police brutality and systemic oppression. Pruitt left no doubt that she disagreed with the other police organization. “We live in a country where the 1st Amendment is a right of the people,” Pruitt wrote. “Mr. Kaepernick chose to exercise his right where his passion was — on the football field.”
The public rebuke laid bare that within police departments there are deep divisions, which fall largely along racial lines, about the approach some professional athletes have taken while leading the new civil rights movement. And on that issue, many black folks who serve and protect simply won’t toe the blue line.
“I just thought to myself, ‘Here we go again,’ ” Pruitt said in an interview recently. “When I read the letter, which makes it seem like all police organizations feel the same way, I was like, ‘Damn it!’ I got a little fired up because, on many social issues, we disagree [with other police organizations].
“The fact is, black officers, because of our experience we bring to the job, may have a different outlook on things. Most of the black officers I’ve spoken to … have a different view about Kaepernick. It’s like this: Just because we all wear a uniform doesn’t mean that we all think alike.”
As the debate continues about both the appropriateness and effectiveness of athletes demonstrating during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” another important national discussion is occurring within the larger one:
How do African-American police officers, military service members and veterans truly view the situation?
When Kaepernick launched his peaceful protest as a member of the San Francisco 49ers, those opposed to his message framed that message as being disrespectful to the military and police, the idea being that any action other than standing solemnly during the anthem is inherently hostile to the nation’s first responders. Kaepernick’s critics contend that active-duty personnel, veterans and police officers are in lockstep in their opposition to him and the others who followed his lead by kneeling or otherwise protesting before games.
There is resounding support for Kaepernick from some veterans as well as some police officers. Still, his detractors largely dismiss those on the other side as being on the fringe or, equally without foundation, as unpatriotic as the onetime dual-threat star. Of course, that’s not surprising, especially when people of color in those groups back Kaepernick, said Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude Jr. Historically in the United States, whites have often been dismissive of blacks who have served in policing and the armed forces, he said.
“There’s a sense in which African-Americans in the uniform have always been, in some ways, read differently,” said Glaude, who teaches religion and African-American studies. “You think about African-American soldiers returning home from World War II and [the racism] they had to endure. When we don the blue uniform, or a police officer’s uniform, it shows that we respect law and order. But the black body is often read differently in those contexts.
“It’s either made invisible so that they’re just presumed to be of one voice with white folks, or their patriotism is still questioned, or they’re attacked as being suspicious characters in some ways. … There’s no direct correlation between black folks and uniform and patriotism or love of country. There’s no necessary relationship between them. No matter what they wear, the only thing that’s being seen is the black body.”
Pruitt, partly, railed against the fact that black officers initially had no voice in the discussion about Kaepernick and Nike. Yet another police organization even went so far as to call for a boycott of the athletic apparel giant.
The Dallas-based National Black Police Association, which was founded in 1972, was determined to be heard on a matter important to many of its members. In responding to the other police groups that admonished Kaepernick and Nike, Pruitt wrote, the “NBPA believes that Mr. Kaepernick’s stance is in direct alignment with what law enforcement stands for — the protection of a people, their human rights, their dignity, their safety and their rights as American citizens.”
Leaving no doubt about the group’s position, Pruitt accomplished her goal — and made a bigger point.
“When we talk about our issues, and we bring them up as our issues because we are black, there tends to be discomfort,” she said. “But this issue with Kaepernick and what he’s trying to do … no. Some things are too important. Sometimes you have to stand up, say which side you’re on and talk about it no matter the discomfort.”
Damian Herring is an old-school Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Ask Herring about his favorite team and he’ll take you back to the 1970s, when the Steel Curtain defense helped Pittsburgh win four Super Bowl championships. He’s an expert on the careers of Hall of Famers Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and Jack Ham. But Herring can also hang with anyone who wants to rap about the latest iteration of the Steelers. Mention Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown and you’d better have time to listen to Herring, who wears his Steelers watch with pride.
While serving in the Army for 21 years, retiring as a sergeant first class, Herring reveled in following his beloved Steelers, and the NFL in general, wherever he was stationed. That’s why, back in 2016, he was confused and disappointed when the player protests began. No one needs to tell Herring that social injustice exists. And being a black man, he’s acutely aware of the nation’s shameful legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. With that established, Herring said, there’s a place and time for everything. On both fronts, the players chose poorly, he believes.
“I’m disturbed by the protests,” Herring said during an interview in his Northern Virginia home. “I feel that it’s very disrespectful. I understand that there are issues. I know that. I understand that they want change. But it’s how you go about it. This wasn’t the right way at all. I just think it’s wrong.”
Herring isn’t alone.
Since the beginning of the season, The Undefeated has spoken with more than 30 African-American police officers, service members and veterans, seeking their opinions about the demonstrations during the anthem. Several echoed Herring’s sentiment, saying that players should have used a different forum to champion social change. The overwhelming majority of those interviewed, however, affirmed that the players clearly have the right to protest, which, despite the practice being constitutionally protected, is not necessarily accepted writ large by people angered by the displays.
What’s more, many who participated in this report backed the players, applauding them for potentially risking their careers to work on behalf of others. The part about players being well within their rights as citizens is in alignment with national polling of service members and veterans, which reveals that, regardless of race, they believe in high numbers that the First Amendment enables players to protest peacefully during games.
In the Herring household, though, it’s not quite so simple.
Herring’s wife, Monique, also served in the Army. She did a two-year tour before being medically discharged. “But then she continued to serve as a dependent,” Herring said. “Dependents serve too. Don’t forget to put that in there.”
Monique Herring supports players in their fight against injustice, but “when I look at [Kaepernick], as an NFL player, I’m thinking, ‘That’s his job.’ The first thing that came to me was that I can’t go on my job and do that or I’m going to get fired,” she said. “But there’s something even more important than that. When you think about the flag. When you think about what it means to us. … ”
With tears welling in her eyes and her voice cracking, Monique Herring, seated next to Herring at their dining room table, stopped to attempt to compose herself. Since she was unable to complete her point, Herring finished her sentence.
“What she’s trying to explain is that when you’re on the battlefield and you’re in the heat of combat, conflict, and you call in for a rescue or for somebody to come and get you, the first thing that we as soldiers are looking for is that flag,” he said. “So that flag means something to us. It means something more to us because of what we do. That’s symbolic not only of safety, but it also embodies the freedoms that we all have and that we’re fighting for. It represents something totally different for veterans.”
On that point, everyone interviewed by The Undefeated agreed. But the attention drawn to high-profile cases involving encounters between the police and African-Americans, most of whom were killed by police or died in police custody, over the past few years has led many veterans to believe it’s now appropriate to use every forum possible to combat what they view as a culture that at least tacitly condones systemic oppression. Patrick Hagood is among those who are fine with the protests.
Hagood served in the Army for more than seven years, retiring as a staff sergeant. Through his love of the Carolina Panthers, the South Carolina native follows the NFL closely. “And I’m not one of those bandwagon people,” Hagood said. “I was there from the beginning. I was with them when [quarterback] Jake Delhomme was there. I’m with my Panthers.”
Kaepernick and the other players who have protested “definitely did the right thing,” he said. “For people who want to say that maybe it was the wrong time and the wrong place, it was actually the right time and the right place. Most people who say that it’s wrong have never walked a day in the shoes of African-Americans.
“They do not empathize with what we go through. They don’t want to even try to understand what we go through. That’s why it’s so easy for them to dismiss us. When your kids have to worry about getting pulled over because they’re driving a certain car in a certain neighborhood, then you can talk to me.”
While on tour in Iraq in 2005, Hagood was severely injured when his vehicle was hit with an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). His right leg had to be reconstructed. He suffered third-degree burns over his face and hands. For more than a year, Hagood could not walk. When people who have not served in the military criticize Kaepernick for exercising the right that Hagood and others have sacrificed so much to defend, Hagood just takes a deep breath.
“They want to talk about the players don’t have the right to do something, which they do, and they say it like they put their lives on the line, when most of them haven’t,” he said. “And let’s be honest about it: We’re mostly talking about a lot of white people.
“I believe that a lot of white people think that only white people serve in the military. That’s why it’s easy for them to think that all veterans are [opposed to the protests]. They don’t see us as being equal to them, so they dismiss us.”
Some veterans are so infuriated by the widespread criticism of the players and the NFL’s poor handling of the situation that they’ve turned their back on the sport. Derrick Upsher is in that group.
Another die-hard Pittsburgh fan, Upsher, who retired as a master sergeant after 28 years in the Army, has all the Steelers gear one could imagine. He has no plans, however, to add to his collection. “Yeah, I’m done,” Upsher said. “The Steelers will always be my team, but I’m done with the NFL.”
For Upsher, the owners’ decision to change the anthem policy, requiring players to stand respectfully on the sidelines during the anthem or remain in the locker room, was the final straw. The policy currently is on hold while the NFL and NFL Players Association continue to examine the situation jointly. Still, Upsher is out.
“My desire to go to football games, buy jerseys or anything like that … that fire has been put out,” he said. “I’ve spent most of my life doing what I did for one reason: for America to be free for people to protest however they feel peacefully. That’s what the players are doing.
“This is not Iraq. This is no banana republic where you say something against the government one day, then the next day you disappear. This is America. And one of the worst parts about this is most people don’t even understand what it means to take a knee.”
When Kaepernick first sat on the bench while the anthem played during a 2016 preseason game, he wasn’t fined or otherwise disciplined. Under the previous rules of the NFL’s game operations manual, team owners were not empowered to force players to stand for the anthem. During the anthem, “players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand and refrain from talking,” the key passage on the issue stated. Also, because of network timing issues, the NFL said, players for the first time in 2009 were required to be on the sideline in prime time for the playing of the national anthem. The practice was common for Sunday afternoon games, though it largely went unnoticed because networks rarely aired pregame anthem ceremonies.
It’s important to note, however, that the NFL received millions in taxpayer dollars from the Department of Defense and the National Guard for patriotic displays. Against that backdrop, the actions of Kaepernick and others should be viewed in a different light, said University of Southern California professor Todd Boyd.
Boyd, who focuses on race in popular culture, said the activist-players shouldn’t be castigated for declining to participate in a “recruiting commercial” while striving to address a crisis. “If there’s such a thing as free speech,” Boyd said, “then it can’t be free speech just when it doesn’t make other people uncomfortable.
“If it’s free speech, it’s free speech. But like Ice-T said, ‘Freedom of speech … just watch what you say.’ There’s a contradiction there. It’s also important to recognize that someone who stands up to salute the flag and sing the national anthem doesn’t necessarily have patriotism at the forefront of their minds. Just because you do those things, which are symbols and visible, there’s still more to being patriotic than images.
“By his actions, Kaepernick shows that.”
Kaepernick switched from sitting to taking a knee after former Seattle Seahawks player and Green Beret Nate Boyer wrote an open letter to him and they began a dialogue. Boyer persuaded Kaepernick to kneel because that would be more respectful and, hopefully, eliminate confusion that could obscure the player’s intended message. Upsher, who had a 28-year military career, understood the thinking.
He, too, was opposed to Kaepernick’s first act of protest. Taking a knee, though, was right on point, Upsher said.
“All these people complaining about taking a knee, who think they know so much about how everyone in the military thinks, don’t even understand that a special forces soldier encouraged Kaepernick to do that because kneeling means so much in the military,” he said. “It’s like they’re so sure he’s being disrespectful; they just don’t understand.
“We take a knee in the military when we need a break. We take a knee sometimes when we want to talk to our brothers. Somebody falls in combat, we take a knee. A moment of silence, we take a knee. Him sitting down, yeah. I had a problem with that. But taking a knee for a just cause, which is what he did, I’m all for it.”
No more so than decorated former U.S. Army Attorney Kaia Wright. Passionate about the Kaepernick-inspired movement, she began a website, Courage-Under-Fire.com, to chronicle it. “The rights and liberties and freedoms that are supposed to be represented by us standing during this ritual with that flag and anthem … it’s a farce. It’s illegitimate. That cuts them [white people] to their heart. That’s why there’s such vitriol when we don’t stand.”
Wright and most of the other service members, veterans and police officers view the players’ fight as merely a matter of right and wrong. Heather Taylor is confident history will prove that the players were on the correct side.
Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police, which represents black officers in the St. Louis Police Department, feels a bond with Kaepernick and other protesters. “He is protesting police brutality. He’s not saying that every police officer is racist,” Taylor said. “He’s not saying that every police officer is going to kill unarmed African-Americans. That’s not what he’s saying at all.
“What he’s saying is that until our country treats our African-Americans like citizens, and treat us fairly, he’s going to kneel, he’s going to take a knee. That’s what all the players who kneel and demonstrate are saying: Until police stop killing us, this is what they have to do. For me, I see it. I understand it. It’s crystal clear.”
Although it may seem counterintuitive to some that black police officers would feel a kinship with players who have vehemently criticized the police, it actually makes sense, W. Marvin Dulaney said. Dulaney wrote the book on black police. Literally.
In Black Police in America, Dulaney “traces the history of African Americans in policing, from the appointment of the first free men of color as slave patrollers in 19th-century New Orleans to the advent of black police chiefs in urban centers.” There’s no question that black police officers and black activist-players can be united in a common cause, he said.
“I think it sort of stands to reason,” said Dulaney, an associate professor emeritus of history at the University of Texas, Arlington. “Many of them [black police officers] have went through similar situations, similar problems, that African-Americans who are civilians and are not police officers have faced. I’d say the consciousness of most black police officers has been raised in terms of what’s actually happening in our society, in terms of black people and law enforcement. … I can understand why they would support him [Kaepernick].”
Likewise, the experiences of African-American veterans have had the biggest role in shaping their view of, and support for, Kaepernick, who’s awaiting a full hearing on his grievance filed against the NFL alleging owners conspired to ruin his career because of his political beliefs. Activism among black service members and veterans is nothing new, Eric Burin said.
Last month, Burin, a professor of history at the University of North Dakota, published Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent, and Patriotism in 21st Century America, a digital book chronicling what Kaepernick set off. “One of the essays in the book is about African-Americans using their patriotism as a protest weapon during World War I,” Burin said. “When black Americans would come back from overseas, and proudly wear their uniform and hope for and demand equality in America, that so threatened the popular association with whiteness, patriotism and military service that it inspired a ferocious and deadly backlash. In 1919 alone, 10 African-American soldiers were lynched in uniform. That’s part of the legacy that encourages people to want to fight and keep fighting.”
Pruitt certainly has no intention of giving up. Buoyed by the reaction about the NPBA’s defense of Kaepernick (“We received a lot of positive feedback,” she said), the group won’t hesitate to weigh in on future matters involving Kaepernick and the protest movement whenever appropriate. With so much at stake, silence is not an option, she said.
“That’s why we spoke out in support of Kaepernick. We have a duty to support those we feel are doing the right thing, and in the right way,” Pruitt said. “We have to continue to speak out on behalf of those who seek equity and justice.”
Kaepernick and other activist-players are still in a fight with no end in sight. But they’re on the front lines with many black police officers, service members and veterans who also believe in the pursuit of social justice – and all indications are that they’ll continue to stand together in pursuit of it.