On October 15th, the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill, New York, bestowed one of its highly coveted Human Rights Awards on Nobel Laureate, Jody Williams. As part of her acceptance speech, Williams voiced her support for Colin Kaepernick's having "taken a knee" to draw attention to black men being disproportionately shot by police, and other racial inequities.
Williams became the third American woman in history to receive the Nobel Peace Prize when she won in 1997 for her work to ban landmines. She joined us on the phone to discuss her stance on the NFL protests. Edited for brevity and clarity.
KRR: Why in your opinion are athletes, both black and white, taking a knee?
JW: The seeming inability of this country to deal with racism in general, but in particular, the police brutality against primarily black men. There certainly has been violence against black women but the killings of black men have been very, very disturbing to many people. I think [they] helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement.
So when Kaepernick decided to use his fame to take a knee, and by doing so, make a public statement about the need to deal with this, I thought it was outstanding, personally.
And when others joined him, it I think was a pivotal moment in race issues in the country. We may not see a dramatic change immediately, but that Kaepernick took a knee, and then other black athletes and white athletes joined in in their own way and found the support of the team owners, etc. -- it reminds me of the chain of people protesting apartheid outside of the South African Embassy. You know, the impact of doing it again and again and again, famous people and not-so-famous people – it does make a difference.
KRR: We talk about Kaepernick taking a knee. And it's interesting, because Kaepernick initially sat –
KRR: -- but then he consulted with a former Green Beret, Nate Boyer, a Caucasian NFL player, about the most respectful way to protest. And they ultimately decided that taking a knee would be the best way to show respect for the men and women who fight for the country. And yet you're hearing many in elected office suggest that kneeling is inherently disrespectful to those who serve. And so my question is, where is the disconnect there?
JW: I think, well, I think there are several layers of disconnect. I think the first one is that people don't like to see protests, period. We have seen – both in this country and globally – increased repression of freedom of expression. So I think there's that layer. I think that people want to be entertained by sports events – they don't want to have to think. So that's the, 'We don't want to see protests anyway, and what the hell are you doing protesting here at a football game?'
KRR: You talked earlier about the fact that the protests gained the support of team owners. Why do you think that Kaepernick hasn't been signed yet?
JW: I – not being a sports junkie, I don't follow the ins and outs of the issue – but I do want to say that I do think in part it is a backlash because he has the courage to stand up, and take a knee to make a statement.
KRR: Why specifically do you think the President has been so vocal on this issue?
JW: A diversionary tactic. As we know, Mr. Trump likes to pontificate – let me change the word. Mr. Trump likes to rant about issues that will have a positive impact, in his terms, on his base. So if he's ranting about these 'SOB players who make millions of dollars' daring to 'diss' the military, he's doing that to gin up his base. I don't know what—if he personally thinks about it at all. Does anyone know if, or what, Mr. Trump thinks?
KRR: CNN found that 46% of people say that protesting during the anthem is disrespectful to the freedoms the anthem represents, but an almost-equal 45% say such protests demonstrate those freedoms. What will it take for those who support and those who oppose taking a knee to truly hear each other?
JW: That's a deep question. What will it take for the whole political system in this country to hear those who are both on opposite sides, but are further divided and pushed onto opposite sides?
KRR: By what or by whom?
JW: I was actually thinking about this earlier this morning. I was thinking about being tired about the war between political parties in this country. You know, the willful division of people.
What it will take, is a shift in view in this country overall about what are we really at our core working toward in this country. Do we want to continue the ranting, do we want to continue the dividing? Do we want to continue building hate in this country? And that is what, in my view, is part of the division of those who support or don't support taking the knee. It will take serious leadership for people to make a shift.
KRR: Do you see any hope for that?
JW: Clearly it isn't the traditional political parties – at least as they stand now. I think it's going to take different leaders standing up and saying, 'Okay, maybe I'll lose my election, but I am going to stand for something different'. And people. Given my own history of activism, I believe that when civil society organizes to bring about a change, change happens.
KRR: What do these protests mean in the context of our country's quest for a more perfect union?
JW: They mean that important figures have decided that they will use their fame to make a difference. And that also empowers the not-so famous to stand up and make a difference. I think it's terrific. I think it's long overdue.
Despite the fact that, you know, Muhammad Ali – going to jail instead of going to war, and the two athletes in the Olympics raising their fists – famous people have done it before, but not to this extreme.
I wish I could take a knee with Kaepernick.
When I first saw that he took a knee, I [thought], 'Oh, yes! If I could only go to a football game and take a knee with him, I would be so proud.' Whether he ever plays football again, the man has made a statement that affects our culture. And for that alone, he is a hero.