When Colin Kaepernick took the stage of the Audubon Ballroom in New York City this past weekend, on the spot where assassins gunned down Malcolm X half a century ago, the symbolism was unmistakable.

Bates College instructor Christopher Petrella, who was lending a hand to the San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s “Know Your Rights” camp for teens, said he felt as if he were “bearing witness to the passing of the torch.”

Controversy has swirled around Kaepernick since the football player took a knee early this season during the national anthem, a protest mimicked by many other athletes and teams in subsequent weeks.

Several Bates athletes were among the thousands across the country who followed suit.

Kaepernick became a lightning rod for critics who viewed his words and actions as an insult to his country. Supporters, though, hailed him as an increasingly prominent voice for racial justice.

Ameer Loggins, a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Berkeley, said he is “literally right in the thick” of the debate because he’s tight with Kaepernick, a man he’s known for almost a decade and considers “a great dude” who is brilliant.


Loggins told a panel at Bates on Monday that foes portray Kaepernick as a brutish ballplayer, when he is actually a stellar student. Kaepernick is applying to a master’s degree program to continue his education, Loggins said.

Petrella said he came to know Kaepernick online, where the quarterback often retweets his African-American history commentary to his nearly 1 million followers.

This weekend, though, both academics joined the quarterback in Harlem for an educational camp for 240 students, mostly high schoolers. Petrella helped come up with the material for the history-focused sessions.

He said the camp, modeled on one Kaepernick led in Oakland last year, aimed to educate the children about their background and open their eyes to the world around them.

In Petrella’s view, it seemed as though the activists of the 1950s and 1960s were giving way before his eyes to a new generation they trusted to continue the struggle for racial justice.

He said he admired the way Kaepernick “unflinchingly took up that mantle.”


Those who toss insults at the quarterback miss the mark, he said, because Kaepernick “is unnaturally thoughtful and extremely well-read.”

“He’s a student of history,” Petrella said. 

Kaepernick is also making a difference, Petrella said, when he could just be living easy off the money from his football career. A starter since 2012, Kaepernick once took his team to the Super Bowl.

But Kaepernick’s decision to engage in a quietly defiant protest by taking a knee during the traditional playing of the national anthem propelled him to a new level of prominence.

Adedire Fakorede, a Bates athlete and its student government president, said that in the wake of Kaepernick’s protest, a couple of players talked with him about taking a knee as well. He said they were concerned it might be misinterpreted.

But Fakorede said that “taking a knee is bringing to light what people are going through.” It shines a light on injustice, he said.


Bates officials said that at least a few athletes carried through with a protest they felt compelled to make.

Loggins said the harsh words used to describe what Kaepernick intended were typical of the way African-American athletes are described as “brutes and bucks,” as if they were still chattel held in bondage.

Petrella said the media contributed to the problem because it spotlighted Kaepernick himself, rather than the widespread nature of the protests and the rationale for them.

For many people, Kaepernick’s protest seemed like “the misguided behavior of a deranged man” rather than a dignified plea for justice for an oppressed race, Petrella said.

The Know Your Rights camp handed out backpacks to the young people who came to the event this past weekend and pushed students to learn more and join the fray. It included a DNA testing kit so they could learn more about their ancestry and copies of Malcolm X’s famous autobiography.

Petrella said they were eager to discover more about their collective past.


“These youths were hungry,” he said, and ready to delve deeper into the racial divide that has long haunted America.

Petrella said the informal camp is part of a tradition of going outside the institutional framework to teach young people the kinds of things their teachers don’t. He said even colleges such as Bates, which he considers indispensable, offer an incomplete education.

On the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Petrella said, there’s no doubt that it’s worth taking King’s advice and to keep working for justice.

“The time is always right to do what’s right,” King once told Oberlin College students. Petrella said that with Donald Trump about to take office as president, that advice still holds true.

He said progress always comes in fits and starts. It’s not steady and it sometimes retreats. Nevertheless, the fight for something better always remains.

“We’re at the point now where the curtain that is white supremacy has been rudely opened,” Petrella said, but that is merely a reason to try harder.

He said he plans to write more, engage those who disagree and “push back against these very tyrannical elements” that have soured the national agenda.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: