When Nike’s decision to feature Colin Kaepernick in its new advertising campaign set off a flurry of protests and calls to boycott, some national police organizations were quick to leap into the fray.
The National Fraternal Order of Police criticized the ads and implied that the choice to feature Kaepernick was an “insult” to law enforcement officers. And the National Association of Police Organizations went further, calling for a boycott of Nike while disparaging Kaepernick as a “shallow dilettante seeking to gain notoriety by disrespecting the flag for which so many Americans have fought and died.”
Kaepernick, the out-of-work NFL quarterback who touched off the league’s national anthem protests, has long been the target of conservatives, perhaps most notably and vocally President Trump, for his actions, which Kaepernick said were about the mistreatment of minorities at the hands of police.
Sonia Y.W. Pruitt, the national chairperson of the National Black Police Association and a police lieutenant in Maryland, was watching the drama unfold this week and said she was upset by the reactions of the other police organizations. She disagreed with their messages and thought that they didn’t fully reflect the full breadth of political views held by police officers around the country.
So on Wednesday she wrote a letter on behalf of her organization that served as a stirring defense of Kaepernick and sharp rebuke to the harsh words issued by the other police organizations.
“On the contrary,” Pruitt wrote, “NBPA believes that Mr. Kaepernick’s stance is in direct alignment with what law enforcement stands for — the protection of a people, their human rights, their dignity, their safety and their rights as American citizens.”
“That NAPO has chosen this matter to take a stance, only perpetuates the narrative that police are racist, with no regard, acknowledgment, respect, or understanding of the issues and concerns of the African American community,” she wrote.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Pruitt said her organization was motivated to respond to add an alternative police perspective into the debate.
“As black officers, we often find ourselves riding the wave with other officers, but no one has asked us what our opinion is,” Pruitt said. “On many of these social issues we disagree, but nobody knows that, because the assumption is that if you’re a police officer that you all think the same way.”
The National Black Police Association is based in Dallas and was founded in 1972 after black police officers from about a dozen law enforcement organizations came together to discuss the issue of racial representation on police force staffs. Pruitt declined to give the organization’s membership numbers, saying she did not know them offhand, but said it had dozens of chapters around the country and was the largest black police organization after the The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
The group’s statement echoes the one made by 80 current and retired former NYPD officers who rallied in support of Kaepernick in New York last year, as well as the remarks of some veterans who have pushed back on the view that the NFL protests are offensive to the military.
“As public servants we should not be immune to criticism,” Pruitt said. “This is a noble profession. But what we need to understand is that we can’t run away from our problems.”
She said she took particular objection to NAPO’s assertion that Kaepernick had not sacrificed anything, as the ad campaign had maintained, given that he was not a veteran of the military or law enforcement.
"The African American community makes a sacrifice each time a life is unjustly lost at the hands of the very people who should protect them,” Pruitt wrote in the letter. “A sacrifice is made each time the criminal justice system treats people of color as less than. A sacrifice is made each time a letter is sent asking officers to boycott a corporation, without asking those very African American officers who are most affected, what their opinion is.”
She said she thought that sensitivity to police criticism stemmed from an unwillingness to address the topic of race head-on.
“As black officers we live in two worlds,” she said. “On the one hand we’re police officers, and then on the other hand we’re members of the African American community so we’re well versed in both. Which is why we can understand why Mr. Kaepernick took a knee.”