Colin Kaepernick, Korryn Gaines, and the Most Powerful Oppressor

Colin Kaepernick, Korryn Gaines, and the Most Powerful Oppressor August 31, 2016

What shapes our fate, most? For many people in world history, the answer was unarguably outside forces. For the hundreds of thousands brought to North America in chains from Africa, it was the will of European slave traders, not personal decisions, that most shaped their lives. Likewise, for the vast majority of women born in the Islamic world, life is a script written by fathers and husbands. And for nearly a million babies in the womb this year, personal choices are irrelevant. They will live for a few weeks before their silent deaths, never having exercised influence over their own destinies. But what about the lucky few? What about the average American, or Westerner, for that matter, in 2016? Are our fates controlled mainly by outside forces imposing their wills on us, or by our own decisions?

I’d like to suggest that America is unique precisely because it is a place where personal agency and choice (usually) have a greater influence over our lives than do shadowy, impersonal forces. This feature of our republic–self-determination over external coercion–may be the essence of what we call our “freedom.” But that freedom, that rare and precious ability to shape our own lives, means nothing if we believe we’re primarily or only victims.

Two figures in the news and all over social media recently illustrate my point. First, there’s San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who sparked outrage by not standing during the national anthem. Kaepernick explained his silent protest: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Conservative pundits have raked Kaepernick over the coals about how obviously not oppressed he is. He’s fabulously wealthy, has millions of adoring fans, and was raised by white adoptive parents who, by all accounts, love their son a lot. He’s been dealt a good hand in life, there’s no question. Given what we know about his birth parents, it could have easily turned out differently for Kaepernick. He could have become an abortion statistic. No one doubts that he’s benefited from some providential events outside his control.

Fourth_style_fresco_depicting_Perseus_releasing_Andromeda_from_her_chains_on_the_rock,_from_the_House_of_the_Dioscuri_in_Pompeii,_Naples_National_Archaeological_Museum_(17392366095)But personal choice has also clearly played a role in his life. You don’t stumble aimlessly into an NFL quarterback’s helmet. Yet Kaepernick believes the claim by Black Lives Matter and others that African Americans are systemically oppressed in America today–that police forces are out to kill them, and that the justice system is stacked against them. If that’s true, then his own life stands out as an obvious failure on the oppressors’ part. And there’s no shortage of professional football stars who fell from grace to land behind bars. Choices clearly still matter, even for those who seem to have broken all glass ceilings. Kaepernick does himself a disservice if he attributes his success solely to dumb luck as he blames the suffering of others on the same, capricious hand of fate.

Then there’s Korryn Gaines, a clear example of someone whose life and death were determined by an oppressor. But that oppressor was not the police, or the court system, or even white people in general. This 23-year-old Baltimore County mother whom officers gunned down earlier this month in her home was oppressed by her own fatalism and delusions of martyrdom.

Video of the traffic stop that precipitated her fatal encounter with law enforcement shows one thing for certain: Gaines was determined to die. She repeatedly says so herself during impassioned and profanity-laden rants. This woman swallowed, digested, and absorbed the most extreme slogans and rhetoric associated with Black Lives Matter, forming a persecution complex that overcame even her instincts as a mother. The officers in this video show preternatural patience with her, giving her every possible chance to spare herself and her children unnecessary confrontation and suffering. Gaines absolutely refuses, insisting the officers are part of a secret plot to kill her and everyone else who looks like her.

After failing to appear in court and harboring a boyfriend with an outstanding arrest warrant, Gaines succeeds in turning would should have been a traffic ticket into an arrest warrant for herself. Then she escalates that into an armed confrontation with police. In the chilling video that documents her final moments, holed up in her home with a loaded shotgun, we hear her drilling her persecution complex into her young boy’s head.

“What are they tryin’ to do?” she asks him as officers stand in the doorway, imploring her to put the gun down.

“They trying to kill us,” the three or four-year-old answers sheepishly.

Moments later, Gaines gets her wish, having fired shots at an officer. What began as a citation for driving without insurance escalated despite repeated efforts by police to talk Gaines down from her psychological cliff. She was offered innumerable chances to defuse the situation. But for her, the story of bloodthirsty, racist police persecuting a black woman was too all-consuming. She was ready to die, and wanted to die. And she had a camera rolling to document the whole drama.

As a friend of mine put it, Gaines committed “suicide by cop.”

What do these two examples serve to illustrate? Certainly not that racism or bad cops don’t exist. Both are still with us. Neither am I suggesting that we are the sole captains of our destinies. Much of life is out of our control, and we have to play the hands we’re dealt, whether skin color, family wealth, upbringing and education, or genetic health. God is in ultimate control of our lives, not us. And He reminds us of that by placing so many aspects of life outside of our control.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have agency, especially in a society as relatively free and prosperous as the United States. Here, personal choices matter more than they do anywhere else on earth, and probably more than they have at any other time in human history. Yet those who fear shadowy conspirators secretly controlling their lives are their own oppressors. In this environment, our beliefs about ourselves and our society become, to a large extent, self-fulfilling prophecies. Our conscious choices can mean the difference between becoming a rich and famous football star, and dying a bloody death in front of our children.

Much  of mankind has had their stories written by others. More than any other people in history, we write our own stories. Failing to recognize that may be the very worst form of oppression.

Image: Perseus releasing Andromeda, Naples National Archaeological Museum, Wikimedia Commons

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