A mural of Colin Kaepernick on Telegraph Ave. in Oakland, circa 2016. Pendarvis Harshaw
A mural of Colin Kaepernick on Telegraph Ave. in Oakland, circa 2016. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

America — and Colin Kaepernick — Need a New Contract

America — and Colin Kaepernick — Need a New Contract

Exactly one year ago I took a photo of a mural of Colin Kaepernick. The mural, located on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland but now painted over, was inscribed with the words “We Got Your Back.” I posted the photo as I walked home from work, and it quickly became one of my most popular, retweeted over 2,400 times.

I wonder how the mural would’ve been received if the words “We Got Your Back” weren’t a part of it; instead, just Kaepernick. I mean, even a year ago, we all knew what he stood for — or rather, knelt for. His name has become synonymous with a silent protest, one that's both ruffled feathers and inspired people.

And now, after this past weekend, the protest has grown to involve Steph, Stevie, LeBron, dozens of other athletes and even those who sing the national anthem. It has spread far beyond the Bay Area, and is currently dominating the national conversation.

But with all that conversation, Kaepernick's original goal — to protest police brutality and the unfair treatment of people of color — is lost among the chatter. Pundits, team owners and politicians have talked and talked and talked, and what has it gotten us? Hollow signs of solidarity from Hollywood that miss the point, or the NFL, in a new commercial, promoting a vague sense of "unity." (This week's Sports Illustrated is dedicated to the protest, with 10 athletes, coaches, and owners featured on the cover. Kaepernick isn't one of them.)

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But it makes me think that Kaepernick's on to something: What if we didn’t use the oppressor’s language to protest the oppression?

Stevie Wonder and his son Kwame Morris onstage during the 2017 Global Citizen Festival: For Freedom. For Justice. For All. in Central Park on September 23, 2017 in New York City.
Stevie Wonder and his son Kwame Morris onstage during the 2017 Global Citizen Festival: For Freedom. For Justice. For All. in Central Park on September 23, 2017 in New York City. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

People of color have been fighting white supremacy for years. Organizing. Protesting. Boycotting. “Fighting the power!” John Carlos and Tommie Smith did it with a raised fist during the 1968 Olympics. A silent shot fired. Their protest, and Kaepernick's alike, make me think: to conquer white supremacy, you can't use the English language.

That's the language the "American Contract" was written in, signed by John Hancock and friends. White men who believed they were supreme. White men who were elected, chosen, ordained to govern the masses -- that's who made rules for this land. They spoke a language that the uneducated weren't privy to, a language that women didn't have access to, a language that enslaved Africans, who could be killed for reading and writing. English.

There have been amendments, alterations, and changes to both the contract and the language, but the signed document remains. And if we're going to do away with white supremacy, and create a world where people have equal access to the pursuit of happiness, we're going to need a new contract. We're going to need new signatures on that contract. We're going to need that contract to be a byproduct of a new way of thinking. And it’s going to have to be written in a new language.

The new “American contract” is going to have to be radical -- something the world has never seen. I can't even fathom what full equality would look like. For the disabled and bisexual, for Muslim and Mexican, for educated and incarcerated, for every ethnicity.

No stereotypes. No racism. No judgment. No supreme beings. No hierarchy. Just people.

“Equality”? Maybe that's not the word for it. Maybe the English language doesn't have a word to express the contract I'm striving for. Maybe we have to create it, this new language that isn't rooted in white supremacy.

Justin Houston of the Kansas City Chiefs takes a knee during the National Anthem before a game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sept. 24, 2017 in Carson, California.
Justin Houston of the Kansas City Chiefs takes a knee during the National Anthem before a game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sept. 24, 2017 in Carson, California. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

"The basic social contract is that citizens agree to follow the law, pay their taxes, and devote their love and loyalty to their country, and in exchange, the nation commits to preserve and protect and serve their interests, safeguard their freedom, and return to them in kind their first allegiance and loyalty."

That's along the lines of the kind of contract I’d want. It’d be wonderful to see it apply to all Americans, regardless of skin color, religion, sexual preference, disability, or any other defining factor. And if the above quote were to come out of the mouth of someone other than Jeff Sessions – who was once denied a federal judgeship by the Senate Judiciary Committee for literally being too racist, and who garnered the ire of none other than Corretta Scott King, the author, activist, civil rights leader, and wife of Martin Luther King, Jr. — that would make it a bit more convincing as well.

In the meantime, while the 240-year battle continues to prove that all men and women are equal, as the American contract states, we’re also waiting for Colin Kaepernick to get a new NFL contract. Because he shouldn’t be penalized for using his voice — or rather, protesting in silence.

I'm not fully clear on how to do this. But I am clear on one thing: if we're going to create an equal society by fighting and eventually ending white supremacy -- the thing that has been ingrained in America since before the formation of the union -- we're going to have to acknowledge its existence, not just in policing, politics, art and sports, but in something as mundane as language.

We're going to have to change the way we talk about it. And we're going to have to renegotiate this contract.

Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland, and a weekly columnist for KQED Arts. Find him on Twitter here.

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