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What Kaepernick means to them: Talking to families of victims of police violence about the former quarterback’s advocacy

2019-08-26

Colin Kaepernick (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

“Chuck, this is Veda Sterling. I want to talk about Colin Kaepernick."

This was my voicemail message from the aunt of Alton Sterling, Veda Washington-Abusaleh, whom I had met in Ferguson on the fifth anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. She had come to support the Brown family along with many other families who lost loved ones to police violence.

She was calling to express her heartfelt love for Kaepernick.

“I am furious right now because I appreciate everything that Kaepernick did for my nephew. I appreciate his sacrifice because he made a sacrifice for this cause. Just to hear this man bash him, I was furious.”

“I didn’t catch the football player’s name,” Washington-Abusaleh continued, “but he was saying that Kaepernick should not be taking a knee because he is a ‘mixed-breed.’ He said he doesn’t think that Kaepernick understands what we as a black people are going through. It made me really mad because Colin did more than anybody else. I know he gave up more than anybody except the families who lost lives.”

The former player to which she referred is Marcellus Wiley, now an ESPN pundit, and while her words did not reflect exactly what Wiley said, she got the gist right. Her voicemail summed up her frustration, one she said she felt about all of Kaepernick’s many critics.

“It’s really sad that they’re trying to build the case on Kaepernick because of the sincere deed that he did. You don’t have to be a black person to support the black community. My family is a damn rainbow. White, Mexican, Japanese. And a lot of biracial family. But we eat off the same table. You don’t have to be black to feel the pain of the black community. Just watch the videos.”

The world saw many videos from many angles of Baton Rouge cop Blane Salamoni killing Sterling.

Earlier this month, Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul formerly apologized to the Sterling family, “That’s good, I accept his apology," said Sterling’s aunt. “But it’s not enough. Salamoni needs to go to jail...Salamoni got a year of paid vacation.”

Perhaps no cop so perfectly embodies Kaepernick’s justification for his protest because, as she says, “there are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Salamoni checks off all three boxes and more. More recently released police cam video shows a wild and unhinged Salamoni pointing his gun at Sterling’s head and repeatedly threaten to “shoot your f--king ass, b-tch,” and “shoot you in your f--king head."

Alton Sterling and Kaepernick are forever linked. The birth of Kap’s public protests was not, as many seem to think, in an NFL game, but in an Instagram post a day after the Sterling was killed where Kap posted: "This is what lynchings look like in 2016!” and then asked "When will they be held accountable?”

It’s now 2019, the answer seems to be: “never.”

The lynching analogy has held up well. Not only was Salamoni not convicted, he wasn’t even arrested. While Paul publicly stated Salamoni “never should have been hired,” Washington-Abusaleh scoffs and says, “The government knows. They know who they hire.”

The government does know. The FBI issued report on the threat of white supremacists infiltrating police in 2006, and another report in 2015. Various investigative reports since have exposed thousands of current and retired law enforcement officers openly expressing rampant racism and other biases.

Not only can’t most families get justice, most even can’t get noticed. ESPN, CNN and nearly every other Kaepernick TV panel doesn’t see their perspective as valuable enough to include them. Pundits pontificate on Kaepernick the messenger instead of grappling with his impact on the families he speaks for.

At the fifth anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, though, appreciation for Kap was widespread.

“He didn’t just take a stand for me,” said Michael Brown, Sr., said about Kap, “he did it for all of us”.

“My son Cary Ball Jr. was shot 21 times with 25 bullet wounds,” said Cary Ball, Sr., “for Kaepernick to take a knee, he took a stand for my child. He took a stand for justice and humanity”.

“We appreciate Kaepernick a great deal. If I had 10,000 tongues, I couldn’t thank him enough,” says Andrew Joseph, father of Andrew Joseph III, “Thank you because there is no feeling in the world like going to the graveyard to have to visit your child. As a grown man, it tears you up. It’s the worst feeling in the world. I now understand how mine had to die for many more to live.”

Sit on that last line for a second..

Kaepernick revealed in a Paper Magazine interview that the inspiration to launch his youth-focused Know Your Rights Camp (KYRC) was his feelings of pain and anger “shortly after the execution of Mario Wood,s, the 26-year-old killed on December 2, 2015, by five San Francisco police officers.

Soon after, Mario’s mother had this to say: “He should know that he’s impacted a family and a community that never had a platform, never had a voice,” Gwendolyn Woods told TMZ. “I am very proud of him. To feel that someone of Colin Kaepernick’s stature spoke his name...spoke truth to his light, yeah, I like to think my child can rest a little easier.”

This is the gift Kaepenick has been giving to families.

The same goes for Eric Reid, Kenny Stills, and other protesting players who have cited by families. In speaking with more than 10 family members who lost loved ones to police violence about Kaepernick, this author can attest that Gwendolyn Woods is the norm. Watch for yourself.

While Emmett Till and Mike Brown are well known, families of young men like Jamarion Robinson (shot 76 times by federal marshals), Justus Howell (shot in back while running away) or Nicholas Thomas represent the vast majority who suffer in national anonymity.

Part of the reason is for three years The Kaepernick Debates have shut them out. By ensuring these families’ invisibility, networks have maintained the false framing of Kap’s knee as an “Anthem Protest” over “Police Accountability."

What’s lost is humanity. What’s lost is the victims and their families.

Modiano an educator and journalist focused on covering sports and policing. He has been a sports columnist for the New York Daily News since 2016, and has been a contributing author to “Killing Trayvons” and “Football Culture and Power.”