Before the cops bought Dylann Roof a burger after he killed nine people in a South Carolina bible study and before Michael Slager shot Walter Scott in the back after a traffic stop and then planted evidence on his body; before Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death on camera and Jeronimo Yanez killed Philando Castile for legally owning a gun; before Sandra Bland was found hanging in police custody and Heather Heyer was run over by the fascist James Harris Fields, Jr., and the police told the media he was “just scared”; before Jeremy Joseph Christian told two young women of color on a train in Portland, Oregon to go back to Saudi Arabia and then stabbed to death two of the three men who rose to defend them—“I’m a patriot! This is what liberalism gets you!” he shouted in court—before James Harris Jackson came to New York from Baltimore for the purpose of killing black men and stabbed 66-year-old Timothy Caughman to death while he was collecting cans; before John Russell Houser killed two women in a movie theater for watching a feminist film and before Robert Lewis Dear, Jr. was captured alive after killing three people—one of them a cop—in a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood; before the police killed Freddie Gray in the back of a van and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a park in Cleveland; after so many thousands of others but before all of these, officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown when he was standing in the middle of the street with his hands up in Ferguson, Missouri.
Wilson thought he was just killing an animal, an angry beast with the temerity to do something other than what he said exactly when and how he said it. The courts and his fellow officers agreed with him, and he was rewarded with early retirement. But Wilson wasn’t killing a creature like a dog or a pig whose complex emotional lives we routinely torture and destroy without consequence. He was killing a citizen of the United States of America, and these creatures are stubborn. They do not listen when you tell them that for 400 years reactionary violence has been part of the culture of this nation. They do not believe it when you point out that the Constitution has always been a hypocritical, contradictory, selectively-enforced document, only taken seriously by the weak-minded. They cannot be convinced that a garish rectangle set about with stars and stripes is just another piece of cloth. And so the protests began. In the streets, in the classrooms, and on the football field, when Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to the blatant, doggedly consistent violation of American citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and due process.
What did they expect would happen? That’s the part that has turned me against more beloved members of my family than I would have thought possible. It’s not that they approve of the killing, here or elsewhere, it’s that they apparently share the widespread expectation that after the killing there would be no consequences whatsoever of any kind. Not just in the sense of a lack of official condemnation or punishment but actually nothing. As if something going up doesn’t also come down. As if the friends and family of the deceased would just shrug their shoulders and go on about their lives in complete and total violation of Shylock’s Law.
What is Shylock’s Law? It’s not the one you have probably heard about. The gentle are fond of quoting Shylock’s rhetorical questions in times such as these, particularly “if you tickle us do we not laugh?” and “if you prick us do we not bleed?” but they neglect the entire passage, which is much less comforting. Recall that Shylock has chosen to lend Antonio 3,000 ducats, even though Antonio routinely subjects Shylock to anti-Semitic abuse in public. As a way of literally getting even, Shylock refuses to lend to Antonio at interest—that is, he refuses to play the Jew—but instead does the “Christian thing” and lends him the money free of charge, provided he returns it on time. Should Antonio fail, Shylock will collect not 3,000 ducats, but a pound of Antonio’s flesh, as the Christians do from their slaves when they are displeased with them.
Faced with the imminent failure of Antonio to pay on time, Salerio remarks to Shylock “Why, I am sure if he forfeit thou wilt not take his flesh. What’s that good for?” And Shylock replies with one of the great passages in literature and a lesson we are still struggling to learn. What is the flesh good for?
To bait fish with! If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? This is Shylock’s law, the first law of social physics: people push back. That’s what makes them people. Not always in redemptive, uplifting, or effective ways, but they push and that’s what makes the oppressed the same as the oppressor. Not their singular and beautiful suffering, but their typical spleen. It’s all well and good to imagine a universal brotherhood of victims, each mourning in their own, culturally distinct ways, but the minute you attempt to point out that revenge, too, is part of creaturely existence, that’s when you see Grandpa’s mask drop and the fangs come out. This is why Trump talked about the firing of Colin Kaepernick as though it had not already happened and this is why Shylock ends The Merchant of Venice with everything taken from him—his money, his daughter, his religion—because there is no punishment too disproportionate to be visited on someone at the margins when they dare to mention the fundamental scientific fact of their equality with someone at the center. That’s when the ruling class declares a fire sale: everything must go.
It will no doubt strike many as inappropriate, to say the least, to speak of Colin Kaepernick’s protest as a kind of revenge. Before this year, I would have agreed with them. Tactically it has seemed necessary to downplay the mounting evidence that not only was Kaepernick’s protest working, but that it was actually tearing the league apart. Letters poured in from aggrieved white patrons demanding an end to the protests, ratings started to drop and they’re still dropping, such that it now seems impossible to deny what the fascists have been saying for a while now, that Kap has succeeded where concussions, Deflategate, and roughly 30,000 hours of advertisements per game had failed: it has given people a reason to give up the game for good.
The only adjustment we must make to this diagnosis is that it was not Kaepernick who did this, it was the systematic campaign of reactionary terror that a large percentage of the NFL’s Republican audience wanted to pretend wasn’t happening. Unfortunately for them, the Pentagon paid the league $5 million to install an anthem ritual before every game and with the anthem comes the flag and with the flag that pesky little Bill of Rights. The discourse of rights is hyperbolic, as Etienne Balibar points out: it says more than it intends to. Intended merely to defend slave owners from the madness of King George, the rights to life and liberty can’t help but reach beyond this and apply to everyone. And so if you want to draw attention to the systematic violation of these rights in the middle of the empire’s favorite game, all you have to do is refuse to give up your seat when the masters sing their little song. Or, even better, take a knee.
There are much better reasons to give up football, of course, than the fact of Kaepernick’s protest, just as there are much better reasons to oppose Donald Trump than the fact that he received Russia’s help in stealing the election. But we can’t always choose the weapons at our disposal, and it is important not to die of being right. So if I can take it as granted that most anyone reading this agrees that Trump must be opposed at all costs, let me spend these few remaining words articulating my resistance to giving up on football entirely.
There have been many comparisons made between our current struggles and those of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The best thing that can be taken from this comparison is a reminder that non-violence is more strategic than moral: the point is not that it feels good, the point is that it works, as Kap has brilliantly reiterated. But the stakes are not entirely similar, even if the violence of the reaction has come to feel so. This is because the civil rights movement was chiefly about removing legal barriers to black equality which had been institutionalized by Jim Crow, many of which have returned in other ways, as Michelle Alexander and others have tirelessly pointed out.
Less widely understood is that the inequality installed by Jim Crow had a deeper function, which was to disrupt, prevent, and destroy black ownership and black accumulation. This is one reason why interracial marriage was outlawed—to prevent black inheritance of white capital—and this is why Obama’s presidency provoked such disproportionate hatred. Because whatever little bedtime stories we like to tell ourselves on the left, everyone from outside the city knows for certain that the President is owner-in-chief. And if white Americans could maybe reconcile themselves to a certain, somewhat idealistic or immaterial equality with their fellow black American citizens, they couldn’t with the idea of being owned by them. And so once the criminal traitor Mitch McConnell made it clear that the new black owner would be entirely disallowed from helping those Mitch had made his career immiserating—google “American Jobs Act” sometime and imagine a world in which it passed—then there was no reason for everyday Americans to resist the onrushing reaction from the old ruling class. Not that they voted for Trump mind you—“the poor voted for Trump!” lie is still a lie—they just didn’t turn out for Clinton as much as they might have if the stakes had been made clear in advance.
I worry something similar is happening with the NFL. On the one hand, it is corrupt, reactionary, dangerous, and stupid. On the other, it is less white than it has ever been, and it is uncomfortable to admit that this blackening of the sport has coincided with good liberals abandoning it for “other reasons.” This isn’t to say football shouldn’t switch to flags. (Which in fact could be great, if done right: picture the glorious leaping grabs after a runner’s flag and the new moves they’d develop to compensate.) I am saying I am finding it harder and harder to participate in the moral outrage machine that just happens to coincide with a league that suddenly has a bunch of exciting new quarterbacks of color, one of whom just led one of the greatest non-violent protests in a generation and paid for it with his job. If living well is the best revenge, then I want a majority-black NFL and I want it to be more profitable, more powerful, and safer than ever. After Trump’s deranged demand that ownership purge NFL athletes who fail a loyalty test, it felt a little miraculous when, by a quirk of a game being played in London, Sunday morning dawned on the vision of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens arm in arm during the National Anthem. Standing with them was Shahid Khan, the league’s first non-white owner. I’d prefer no owners at all, but for now, it was a vision worth kneeling for.