Two unlikely issues crossed paths this week in San Francisco: a football player’s stance on the national anthem and the ongoing fight over the future of the San Francisco Police Department.
Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the 49ers, was thrust into the spotlight when the media caught wind of his refusal to stand for the national anthem at a preseason game Friday. When asked why by reporters, he said he would continue to sit until the nation makes progress on racial injustice, such as police brutality.
“I’m gonna continue to sit, I’m gonna continue to stand with the people who are being oppressed,” he told reporters. “When there’s significant change, I’ll feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country.”
San Francisco’s police union brought itself into the fray earlier this week by sending a letter Monday to the 49ers and the National Football League attacking Kaepernick for his statements on the police.
“Mr. Kaepernick has embarrassed himself, the 49er organization, and the NFL,” reads part of San Francisco Police Officers Association President Martin Halloran’s letter. “The law enforcement community cannot be continuously blamed for all of society’s problems, including racial divide, in our country.”
But Wednesday, the union faced backlash for those comments from protesters who converged at the union hall at 6th and Bryant streets, prompting the union to close its headquarters for the day.
“The POA letter was a disgrace,” ACLU lawyer Alan Schlosser, who called the POA a reactionary force in San Francisco, said at the protest Wednesday. “They are making it clear they are not leading the call…into 21st century policing. They want 19th century policing.”
The Kaepernick controversy has included social media posts of people burning his jerseys as well as veterans backing his right to protest the national anthem.
But in San Francisco, the controversy has been folded into an ongoing battle of words between the oft-vocal police union, and activists and police critics over the future of the Police Department. The union has repeatedly said there is no institutionalized racism in the ranks while activists have pointed to examples to the contrary, including two cases of police sending racist texts messages.
Wednesday’s protesters, which included members of the ACLU, the Nation of Islam, and the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition, as well as San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, called the union’s letter one more sign that it stands in the way of reform and remains unapologetic for failing to acknowledge accounts of police brutality in San Francisco and the nation.
The department has been under fire in recent years over accounts of racism and fatal police shootings, which have spawned a federal review and a raft of reforms meant to limit the number of deaths at the hands of police. In May, former police Chief Greg Suhr resigned following months of protests for his firing and reforms in the department, which many of those at Wednesday’s protest participated in.
Meanwhile, Kaepernick was lauded by protesters as one of the latest in a tradition of athletics who took a stand against racism and oppression in America.
“[The] POA suggests that these types of issues do not exist,” said John Burris, a civil rights lawyer, who called Kaepernick a “beacon” in the fight for justice. “He is another soldier, another person who says ‘enough is enough.’”
Speakers also attacked the union for ignoring data that shows the disparate treatment of people of color at the hands of police in San Francisco.
“The POA are the ones that need to be stopped,” said Deputy Public Defender Mark Jacobs, who added that the union continues to stand in the way of change.
When Minister Christopher Muhammad of the Nation of Islam addressed the union’s letter, he asked why the union was asking for Kaepernick’s apology when police in San Francisco have yet to apologize for a litany of fatal police shootings, including of Mario Woods, whose death was caught on video and sparked months of protests and calls for reform.
“Colin doesn’t have to apologize for a damn thing,” said Muhammad.
Martin Halloran said in a statement Wednesday he respects the right of the protesters to voice their opposition to the union.
“There’s no doubt that we disagree with some of the more outrageous arguments made against our union by the protesters. But the bottom line is that the SFPOA is one of the most diverse police unions in the country, and our 2,100 members are committed to fighting racism in all its forms. Racism is not welcome in our ranks.”
The 49ers and the NFL have said in statements that Kaepernick will not be punished for his actions.