As I sat in the car on the way to Oakland on Sunday morning it occurred to me that a decision I never gave much thought to was going to carry extra consequences and significance on this particular afternoon.
The 90-minute drive from Sacramento to the O.Co Coliseum was longer that day thanks to traffic, and more jovial than usual thanks to a stunning win in New Orleans for the Raiders one week prior. The anticipation was palpable, and for the first time in over a decade it seemed like the Oakland Raiders were going to be a respectable football team, talented enough to actually invest in as a fan.
But as conversations often do between people of color, our joking and gleeful bragging about Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper eventually gave way to more weighty topics like systematic oppression, police brutality, real-estate redlining, slavery, forced assimilation of Native Americans, the North Dakota pipeline controversy and all sorts of issues that hung over our heads even when we didn’t want them to. There we sat, a Mexican/Native American and a black man, relatively young, discussing topics that are typically taboo, seen as complaining and griping. Naturally, thanks to national chatter and our geographical location in Northern California as well as the fact that we were driving to an NFL game, the name Colin Kaepernick came up, as did the national anthem, protesting and every thing else.
We never outright discussed what we were going to do when it was time to stand for the anthem before the game, or any protest for that matter. I had no idea that Terence Crutcher had been killed by a police officer in Oklahoma two days prior, or that video would be released the next day showing that Crutcher had his hands up, his back turned and was unarmed. Nor could I have known that just two days later, another black man would killed by police in Charlotte. But I do have the sight of Mike Brown’s prone, dead body laying face down on a scorching Ferguson street after he’d been killed by Darren Wilson etched into my memory. Same for Oscar Grant, Alton Sterling and countless others that have become hashtags and symbols of inequality, brutality and racism that runs rampant in this country.
Also embedded in my mind was the sight of Kaepernick, kneeling, afro protruding out of his scalp with all his overt Blackness beaming on my TV screen. The power that exuded, the eloquence with which he handled the media scrutiny, the nuance of his stance and willingness to compromise, the money he put up and the many players that followed suit. It’s a harmless protest, but a successful one that has sparked so much conversation, even if the the killings have yet to cease.
What I realized during that car ride Sunday morning was that this held more significance than any national anthem I’d ever sat or stood through before. I didn’t attend any of the preseason games, but I was aware that none of my beloved Raiders had sat or knelt during the anthem. In fact, Raiders Head Coach Jack Del Rio and franchise quarterback Derek Carr had been outspoken about the fact that they would stand during the anthem and honor the country and military.
I’d sat, kept my hat on and any other number of actions that would seem “disrespectful” during the anthem many times. At Raider games, Kings games, my son’s little league opening day, and many other events wherein spectators are showered with the sounds of “The Star Spangled Banner.” It was never some grand statement, mostly reasons were practical — it was hot, I was tired, I was otherwise occupied. Never was I met with any sort of scrutiny during that decision.
There was an awkward tension in the moments before guitarist and fellow Sacramento-native Craig Chaquico was set to run through his interesting rendition of the national anthem. The uniformed flag bearers stood on the patiently while the Raiderettes sashayed their way through a routine set to the sounds of Mac Dre and E-40. Surrounded by fans of all shapes, sizes, genders, races and ethnicities in one of the most diverse pockets of the country I wondered if there would be fans sitting or offering their own forms of protest. My friend and I still hadn’t discussed any plans for the anthem nor did we need to.
When the time came, and the crowd was asked to stand and remove their hats we remained seated, silently, in unison, unflinchingly and without notice.
We weren’t the only ones either. People of color and white fans alike sat, both in my row and my section as well as the section next to us. I’d wondered if there were any military personnel around us, and whether they’d be upset. Like just about everybody I have family members who serve or have served for various branches of the military. My friend who was with me has a sister who serves now, a father who served before, a grandfather who was a high ranking member decades ago. I didn’t want anybody to think I didn’t respect the military and I was prepared to answer to any members of the armed forces if I was questioned.
So there we sat, and I glanced around to see others doing the same when a leathery, tanned older man next to us asked my friend if he was going to stay seated and when he confirmed the man proclaimed, “that’s a shame.”
While the anthem was playing he noticed us on our phones and again spoke up. “You’re just going to be disrespectful all on your phone, huh?”
Those were the last words he spoke to us for the day, even though, oddly enough, he high-fived us after big plays multiple times.
I sat because really, it’s the least I could do. This country has its flaws, and those flaws always seem to target and negatively affect my people. I am disgusted, and the conversation on the way to the stadium served as a reminder of the oppression, inequality and racism we face on a daily basis. As “disrespectful” as some believe sitting is to the country, the flag and the military, I feel like the deaths of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Tyree King and countless others are even worse. The fact that there’s even a debate is disheartening, infuriating and frustrating all at once. The racist, slave master rhetoric of “protest, but not like that” is bothersome, and the fact that others sat with us was empowering.
Ultimately, I sat during the anthem because I’m tired. Tired of constantly seeing dead bodies, reading excuses, watching the typical cycle of victimizing the shooter and vilifying the victim. Being a person of color in 2016 is exhausting. Explaining these issues to my kids is painful. And knowing that they’ll have to face that same adversity is traumatic.
Like most parents, I’ve been preparing for Christmas, wondering what I’d grab for my kids this year. Early on I’d crossed a BB, airsoft or paintball gun off my son’s list, not because I thought he might shoot a friend’s eye out, or hit his sister on accident, or because he didn’t deserve one. I crossed it off because I’m terrified of what’ll happen if he has it on him and comes across police one day, or if he’s playing with it in the front yard and a neighbor gets scared and dials 911.
I sat because I actually have to account for that while figuring just what I can and cannot give my son as a present. I sat because in my household I have to worry about my 10-year-old being mistaken for a man, not a child. I sat because I have to make decisions in his life based on how police might perceive him should they come across him. I sat because that’s my existence and it shouldn’t be, under any circumstances.
By the time I woke up the next morning, I could watch on my phone the video of police killing another black man. By the end of the month I’ll probably see a few others. I’m not sure if I’ll sit during the anthem for the six remaining home games this year, but there’s a good chance I will — and I’ll probably be joined by even more people around me yet again.