(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)]
Who would have thought that Colin Kaepernick’s simple act of kneeling during the National Anthem would continue to be an important topic in national politics two years later? Kaepernick’s attempt to bring attention to the problem of police violence shook not only the sports world, but the whole country; the reactions have been deeply polarized. He has been joined by athletes all over the country who want to express their solidarity with Black victims of police violence. Not only do professional athletes continue to follow his example, but high school football players were kicked off the team and a teacher was transfered for the protest.
On the other hand, Kaepernick’s silent and symbolic protest resulted in him not being signed to play football last season. There is also Donald Trump, who has made a national issue out of the actions of a football player: “Wouldn’t you want to see one of those NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now’?” Trump asked at a rally. He also tweeted: “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”
The next event in the kneeling saga is unfolding before our eyes. Nike began an ad campaign starring Kaepernick, which says “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” To some degree, this is fitting for Kaepernick, who has been excluded from the NFL due to his political position and became the subject of ire from the president of the United States.
The reaction to this ad campaign demonstrates the depth of racial hatred in the U.S. Hundreds of bigots are recording themselves cutting off the Nike swoosh symbol and burning Nike products. By Tuesday morning, over 30,000 people had tweeted under the hashtag #NikeBoycott.
The following was retweeted 16,000 times: “First the @NFL forces me to choose between my favorite sport and my country. I chose country. Then @Nike forces me to choose between my favorite shoes and my country. Since when did the American Flag and the National Anthem become offensive?”
This level of racial hatred is indicative of the Trump era, with an empowered right-wing increasingly open about their bigotry and increasingly willing to take actions. We can see this in the increase in hate crimes and the 2017 neo-Nazi Unite the Right march that killed Heather Heyer.
But the violence that Kaepernick is protesting is institutional. In 2017, the police killed 987 people in the U.S. Police killings of unarmed people, disproportionately Black men, have continually gone unpunished, even when they are recorded on tape. Some of these police murders bring about massive mobilizations, but most of the time, they are ignored or forgotten. Kaepernick’s silent protest seeks to bring attention to the constant violence that the police inflict on the Black community.
Taking a knee has cost Kaepernick his football career. Using this fact as the central message of his ad campaign, Nike unleashed a mass right-wing boycott of the company. The ability of white supremacist sentiments to organize and mobilize is on full display.
Given this reaction to the Nike ad, some may come to the conclusion that Nike is the uniform of the resistance, the uniform of Black Lives Matter, and that it is on the side of Black and Brown people gunned down by the police.
While feeling disgusted by right wingers who burn Nike logos, which they see as symbols of the Black Lives Matter movement, we need to talk about just what Nike is.
Nike is one of the US’s most boycotted companies, not because they stand up for Black Lives but because of their use of semi-slave labor in sweatshops both abroad and in the U.S. Throughout the 90’s, Nike was one of the main target of mobilizations, and direct actions, many organized by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). Although Nike promised to clean up their act, these mobilizations never entirely went away. Just last year USAS called for a national day of mobilizations against Nike claiming that Nike engages in union busting, wage theft, and verbal abuse, and operates over-heated factories. Nike also refused to be monitored by the Workers Rights Consortium and was given a score of 36 out of 100 in Fashion Revolution’s 2017 Fashion Transparency Index, for not making public any information about its environmental and labor practices.
Furthermore, we are in the midst of one of the country’s largest prison strikes, which demands the abolition of prison slavery: the practice by corporations of making massive profits by paying inmates far below the minimum wage, or sometimes no wage at all. Nike is a well known participant in prison labor, along with other major corporations such as Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret, AT&T, Target, and many others. (Here is a list of 50 companies that have used or currently use prison labor.)
Nike also has an annual “Law Enforcement Appreciation Day” during National Police Week, when law enforcement officers get discounted Nikes. In 2015, this sparked protest and another boycott, with hashtags #BoycottNike and #DontDoIt. Nike stuck to their guns, issuing a statement that said, “Nike has held discount days in its stores for first responders, including law enforcement and the military, since 9/11.”
That’s why Nike is not the uniform of the resistance to police violence. It does not stand for the rights or dignity of people of color but rather for mass exploitation, whose most disgusting and blatant manifestation is prison labor. On one day Nike is providing discounts for police officers and touting the “services” cops provide to Americans. On another day, they are using Kaepernick’s face to advertise to a new generation of activists against police violence. In both instances, Nike is selling sneakers made by prison and sweatshop labor.
Although police protect private property, individual capitalist organizations know a publicity stunt when they see it. Nike exploits Black and Brown people in their sweatshops and in prisons, yet is now featuring an athlete who says Black Lives Matter? Nike is betting on making more money off of the supporters of Kaepernick than racists. But if you support Kaepernick, if you support Black lives, let’s take the streets, instead of buying Nikes.