In 1911, John Scott Haldane had the idea to bring canaries into coal mines to prevent miners dying from odorless carbon monoxide: A sick canary was an early warning to evacuate. In this episode, we go back to the beginning of Colin Kaepernick's public protest against police brutality and the missed opportunity that moment represented for a civil, productive public debate.
In 1911, John Scott Haldane posited an idea to prevent coal miners in Britain from dying from the odorless gas carbon monoxide. He suggested that miners carry caged canaries down into the tunnels with them. Canaries are particularly vulnerable to airborne poisons. If the animal became ill or died, that would give miners an opportunity to evacuate. The idiom “canary in a coal mine” is now popularly used to denote someone or something that is an early warning of danger.
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Since around the 3rd week of quarantine, I have been obsessively thinking and writing about the erosion of social cohesion and the continuing efflorescence of socio-political polarization. Even if you don’t contemplate these subjects, they are hard to avoid. Just open your Facebook app and it will take you 10 seconds to get swept away by the invective, invidious all-caps screaming matches about mask wearing or hydroxychloroquine. This should not be confused with public debate. These are private acts happening in public, solving nothing except to further our atomization and fealty to our political identities.
We have myriad salient societal problems, the starkest currently being COVID and racial justice, and potentially the most existential being global warming and rising authoritarianism. And there are countless other inter-related issues jabbing us on the nose including, but not limited to, income inequality, chronic disease and poor nutrition, lack of quality education, criminal justice and ascendant fundamentalism.
But sitting behind all of these grave symptoms is a more pervasive and insidious illness. We are suffering from an absolute inability to cooperate.
Almost every issue we face exists in a blunt, binary framework and thrusts us into unambiguous role playing in a sparring match of identity politics: pro-life or pro-choice, racist or anti-racist, pro-gun or pro-gun control, pro-police or defund the police, pro-vaccine or anti vaccine, and on and on. In truth, these issues are profoundly complicated and nuanced.
Our positions are obstinately girded in biases that are confirmed and reconfirmed on social media. Our feeds are driven by algorithms and artificial intelligence that arguably understand our preconceptions better than we ourselves do.
Every once in a while, we venture out beyond the borders of our proscribed socio-political landscape. And, even more rarely, we summon the strength to engage in thoughtful dialogue only to be eviscerated by a swarm of locusts. This is the modern instantiation of the public square. Social media has proved to be a brilliant organizing tool but it is an abysmal sandbox for discourse.
Agreement on even the simplest measures of our social contract or engaging in the most token sacrifices for our mutual benefit now seem out of grasp. Forty years ago, less than 25% of us lived in landslide districts, where one candidate won in a landslide over another. Now that number is 80%. We’ve bunkered ourselves in echo chambers so resonant that all we hear our modifications of our own voice. And any thoughtful deviation from that voice now carries a personal risk where simply questioning the political orthodoxy of your group or steel manning your opponent’s point of view in an attempt to more solidly cement your own can cost you your reputation or, in some cases, your job.
Our ability to engage in thorough and respectful debate has deteriorated, but it is these very conversations that are essential in order that liberal democracy function. We have always had disagreement but never have we been so disagreeable.
Humanity’s rise to the top of the food chain is reliant our ability to cooperate flexibly at scale, to find uneasy consensus. Our inability to commune may lead to our demise.
In attempt to address this affliction of dissonance, we need to commit ourselves to creating forum for the thoughtful, respectful exchange of ideas. Even though it may seem daunting, we must humbly seek out thorny, substantive conversations. If we care about America, and there’s plenty of good reason to, we must move beyond performative posts and memes as our primary method of communication. And when someone asks for conversation, which is the central focus of the podcast today, we need to meet their bravery half way. How much more vitriol can we withstand before our country completely unravels?
Ok, so with that preamble, I’ll dive in to today’s episode which we called Canary in a Coal Mine, the idiomatic origin of which was shared at the top of the show.
Since the brutal murder of George Floyd on May 25, we have had a summer of civil unrest unlike anything we have seen in multiple generations. Some of this data are slightly dated but still should express the scale of the activity in the streets.
As of July 3, approximately 20 million people had participated at some point in the demonstrations in the United States, making the protests the largest in United States history. This mass level of participation is underscored by the fact that it has taken place against the backdrop of the largest viral epidemic in 100 years. This can only reflect the depth of the frustration and the anger.
While the majority of protests have been peaceful, demonstrations in some cities have escalated into riots, looting, and skirmishes with police. There have been numerous cases where cops have responded to protests with instances of police brutality, including against reporters. And other cases of police standing down while looters have ravaged businesses. And even other instances of police taking a knee with protesters, a symbolic act which we will discuss in this episode. At least 200 cities in the U.S. had imposed curfews, while more than 30 states and Washington, D.C. activated over 62,000 National Guard personnel due to the mass unrest. By June 30, at least 14,000 people had been arrested, including all four police officers involved in the incident which led to Floyd's death. As of July 5, at least 26 people have died during the protests, 22 due to gunshot wounds.
How did we get here? Perhaps it can be argued that we needed the scab to be crudely pulled off this four-centuries-old wound. But did George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others have to die in order for racial justice to take center stage? Did businesses, already hobbled from the pandemic, need to be looted and burned? Did mass protests which undoubtedly led to some spread of COVID-19 need to happen for us to have a national moral inventory on race? Could all of this tumult have been averted if we had paid attention to the person that warned us of impending danger, to the canary in the coalmine.
The silhouette image of Colin Kaepernick is ubiquitous. Stenciled on sidewalks and spray painted on boarded up businesses, the image of Kaepernick with his signature afro has become the unmistakable icon of racial justice. On the left, he is celebrated as a martyr. On the right, a pariah. His image has become weaponized by the media, conservative and progressive. And because each side has claimed a certain version of him, it’s easy to forget what he was asking for in the first place. To be honest, I didn’t even remember myself exactly what happened. This episode is an account of that story.
On August 14th and 20th, 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers football franchise, remained seated during the national anthem. This was during the pre-season and nobody noticed him on the bench nestled between Gatorade thermoses as other players stood. Then, on August 26th, Jennifer Lee Chan of Niners Nation, a 49ers fan group, tweeted out a photo of the anthem, entirely unrelated to Kaepernick or his protest. However, fans noticed him sitting and word spread quickly.
On August 28, in the 49ers locker room, Kaepernick, confronted by a group of reporters, addressed his objectives for sitting during the anthem. I urge everyone to watch this original interview in its entirety to understand Kaepernick’s intentions and demeanor. In a series of thoughtful and composed answers explaining his actions, he directly addresses the issue of police brutality and insufficient police training.
Evidently, the 2015 police shooting of Mario Woods spurred Kaepernick’s decision to protest. Kaepernick goes on to explain the responsibility he feels to take a stand.
A reporter brings up the idea that the flag and the anthem have special, symbolic meaning for military personnel. Here is Kaepernick’s response to this reporter.
Finally, he’s asked about whether or not his actions will disrupt the team.
Ok. So, Colin Kaepernick is exercising his right to protest peacefully so that America can have a hard conversation about race, about police and about systemic racism.
It seems all in all a pretty reasonable request. But not everyone hears it that way. And the story catapults into the headlines.
For some historical context, this is August 2016. Barack Obama is in the final lap of his presidential tenure. And Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are locked in a tight, heated race with the election just over two months away.
On August 29th, from the campaign trail, Donald Trump makes the following comment, clearly putting his flag in the ground.
And Trump is not the only one offended by Kaepernick’s actions.
The Army Times, an internal military publication for active and retired Army personnel asks Green Beret, Nate Boyer, to write an open letter in response. Boyer, who is white, is a former long snapper, a football special teams specialist whose duty is to snap the football over a longer distance, often to a punter.
In his open letter, Boyer admits to feeling hurt and offended asserting that Kaepernick’s action disrespect those in uniform, the very people who have fought to protect first amendment rights. Kaepernick reads the letter. And seeks out Boyer to have a conversation.
They decide to meet the following Sunday at the team’s hotel in San Diego prior to the 49ers game that night against the Chargers. They meet in the lobby for 90 minutes. Kaepernick is joined by teammate Eric Reid.
Boyer describes his meeting with Kaepernick in this interview a week later.
Boyer and Kaepernick find a common ground in kneeling, a practice that is employed in prayer, in honoring the dead, in proposing to a loved one and in taking audience with royalty. Even, at my kid’s soccer games, when there is an injury on the field, everyone takes a knee and then claps in support as the player limps off the field.
Boyer goes on to say, “It took courage for him to sit initially. It took more courage to bend his position a little bit. I told him if they knelt I would be next to them with my hand on my heart, because I support your right to peacefully protest in this country. That is what I fought for.”
And that is what happened. That night, in San Diego, Kaepernick took a knee instead of sitting. And Boyer stood beside him with his hand over his heart. After the game, Kaepernick agrees to donate $1MM to social justice groups.
The image of these two men is a rare example of two people with opposing opinions coming together and finding common ground. Taking a knee, an act that has tradition in reverence, was a way to honor Boyer while still making a point. However, this example of unity was one that America could not mirror.
The following Sunday, there is a chain reaction within the league, with more players kneeling in peaceful protest.
On, Sept. 8, 2016, Broncos Linebacker Brandon Marshall takes a knee during the NFL season opener.
On Sept. 11, 2016, Four Dolphins, Arian Foster, Michael Thomas, Kenny Stills, and Jelani Jenkins take a knee during the national anthem. Chiefs CB Marcus Peters raises a fist during the national anthem and Patriots TE Martellus Bennett and DB Devin McCourty raise fists after the national anthem, acts reminiscent of the indelible image of John Carlos and Tommy Smith on the medal podium in Mexico City in 1968.
Fastforward. The season end and on March 3, 2017, Kaepernick opts out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers. And even though he is a free agent who led the 49ers to their first Super Bowl since 1994 -- setting multiple offensive records along the way, Kaepernick is not signed by any NFL team during the off-season. He has not played a single game since.
Even though Kaepernick is out of the league, a reality that many claim reflects collusion among franchise owners, the controversy is still alive and well as we roll into the next season.
In 2017, now President Trump, emboldened by his victory gives this critique of players kneeling.
Trump’s comments incite more protest. And on September 24, virtually every team in the entire league has players that kneel and join arms to bring focus to social justice issues.
On October 8, vice-president Mike Pence flies to Indianapolis to attend the game between the Colts and the 49ers. In a pre-orchestrated move, Pence stages a dramatic walk out as a protest to the protest.
In May 2018, facing pressure from sponsors and lower TV ratings, Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner announces that teams will be fined if players kneel for the anthem. The policy was later frozen and is under review. In June 2020, Goodell releases a statement condemning systematic racism and apologizing for "not listening to NFL players earlier" when they tried to address racial injustice.
So we never had the hard conversation that Kaepernick asked for. And racial tensions continued to mount.
In July 2016, the month leading up to Kaepernick’s protest, the murders of Philando Castle and Alton Sterling were captured on mobile video and shared widely.
In 2018, there were 22 unarmed black men shot and killed by police. And in 2019, another 14.
On March 13, 2020, as part of a no-knock raid, police forcibly entered the Louisville apartment of Breonna Taylor and fatally shot her.
And finally, on May 25, we hit the boiling point when Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, brutally murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 8:46 while by-standers pleaded with him to stop.
And here we are reckoning with continuing protest and now the deployment of federal agents to American cities.
Colin Kaepernick was certainly not the first celebrity or athlete to use his or her platform to highlight racial injustice. Jesse Owens, Bill Russell, Muhammed Ali and the aforementioned John Carlos and Tommy Smith.
Score of others have sounded the alarm, including BLM in the wake of the Ferguson riots in 2014.
But now we are paying attention at entirely different level. The fight for racial justice has become mainstream. And you have to ask why is this happening now? Could it be because people are making real noise? It’s not just a polite ask or a peaceful kneel.
Most of the protests are peaceful. But there is significant amounts of rioting and looting. We all should raise our hands quickly to admonish this violence. The destruction of local businesses and burning of neighborhoods is heart-wrenching. In many cases, it will take years for these neighborhoods to rebuild.
Violence also throws a life line to a president whose only remaining game plan for re-election is to resort to a law and order strategy, one that has often had electoral success as exemplified by Nixon, Reagan and, even to some degree, Clinton.
If there is one bomb, one high casualty event, irrespective of the source of that nefariousness, you can easily imagine main stream support for social justice switching from favoring reforms to public safety. There are few, if any, in this movement that doesn’t think that 4 more years of this administration is not an existential threat.
The slowness of Americans to reckon with racial justice raises this question. Do we only pay attention to issues when they reach the inflection point of absolute crisis? Is society analogous to an alcoholic needing to hit rock bottom before he or she seeks medical intervention.
If so, this gives a certain credibility and legitimacy to civil disobedience. Here’s an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s famous speech “the other America” delivered at Stanford University on April 14, 1967.
The language of the unheard is what we are hearing and feeling now.
But there was a moment in 2016, when the protest was completely peaceful, when it dominated every headline and when the plea for conversation was completely thoughtful and reasonable. And we passed on it.
Was George Floyd’s death actually rooted in racism or what is just a horrid act of a rogue cop? We don’t know. Are unarmed black people disproportionately killed by police? To be honest, I have heard compelling arguments on all sides of that particular question. But to only focus on the use of deadly force by the police is to ignore the complicated and deeply racist history of policing from slave patrols to the KKK to the war on drug, as well as a rigged criminal justice system that imprisons black people at a rate five times more than whites. There are approximately 500,000 black people in jails and prisons, many whom are use as cheap or free labor by private companies. I hope to get Khalil Gibran Muhammed on this show to discuss these issues. For now, you can listen to his interview on Radio Lab for a comprehensive history of policing in the United States.
This doesn’t even touch inequities relating to wealth, income, health, access to quality food and education. We just can’t pass on this conversation any longer.
And what else are we passing on? Who else is sounding the alarms that we are not hearing?
Paul Hawken, Bill McKibben and Greta Thunberg on global warming? What catastrophe will we need to endure to tackle this issue.
Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Thomas Piketty on income inequality? I mean, currently, three people in the United States have more wealth than the aggregate of the bottom 50%. How much worse could it get?
Can we listen to student activist Emma Gonzalez on gun control or will we need to live through another mass school shooting?
Can we find the discernment and the humility to listen to voices that are sounding the alarm bell, pleading for thoughtful conversation, who are in the mines breathing the carbon monoxide before any of us.