“Corporations have turned justice into an industry of human rights.”

-- Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story (coming soon to a radical, international book club near you!)  

Nike just signed former NFL star Colin Kaepernick as the face of their 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign. This is major.

Kaepernick, who hasn’t played a game since 2016, the year he kneeled during the national anthem for the simple yet somehow controversial demand that Black Lives Matter, will now be affiliated with the brand that is the official outfitter of the industry that cancelled him. This is a strategic political statement--one that cannot be ignored by the NFL and their racists Kaepernick is actually currently in a lawsuit against.

But, unfortunately, like all political statements, Nike’s endorsement may do little more than remain symbolic, vacuous, and destructive when swallowed.

Here is where things get tricky (to say the least):

First, we have the paradox that Nike continues to be the official brand of the NFL while simultaneously endorsing Kaepernick. Much like every single weapons manufacturer ever who fund boths sides of every war, this is truly an ingenious way to continue to reel in profits from both sides. Except, unlike weapons contractors who prefer to launch their ad campaigns in the barely-standing back-doors of formerly colonized nations with celebrity endorsements from U.S. politicians, Nike needs to be a bit more public to be successful.

Of course Nike knew far-right lunatics would burn and cut up their Nike gear (oh how truly dreadful!) and attempt a boycott. You don’t need a major marketing and strategy team to have known that was going to happen (or even have to do much more than take off the words “Merry Christmas” from your Starbucks cups or simply exist as a woman of color to set the right-wing ablaze). But, Nike also understands the mass support that Kaepernick has, especially across the political left. Do you truly think that a brand would endorse someone who is controversial for symbolic value at the sacrifice of their profits? The answer is in a tweet that has already conveniently went viral:

Photo (above): Chanel 2015 Fashion Show / Image Source: Getty / Pascal Le Segretain

You endorse a controversial “hero” such as Kaepernick, and immediately appear as if you’re “taking a stance”. Meanwhile, Kaepernick supporters watch, in mass, as far right-wing idiots burn their Nike paraphernalia (and of course sometimes their feet in the process but that’s okay because it’s not like they use them stand for anything of value anyway). So how do you respond? You make sure that sh*t sells out. You have to make sure the now poor and vulnerable Nike is not scared from their former fans burning Nike logos over this decision. You have to make sure Nike knows this was a good decision. You have to show those racists, through nothing but your consumption, that you are a Kaepernick fan. So you purchase their Kaepernick gear, en mass. 

Thus, purchasing Nike has now become a political statement, as significant as voting; they’ve created a certain polarizing environment in which we feel that Nike, rather than actual community organizations working to further civil rights, needs our support, praise, money, and visibility. 

Speaking of things that need our support, praise, money, and visibility, this 30th anniversary campaign also comes just months after Nike signed an 8-year contract with the NFL, which some are speculating to be worth billions. And even further, the last time the #BoycottNike hashtag was trending was when Nike announced their annual “Law Enforcement Appreciation Sale” in the midst of hightented domestic police shootings of Black people.

So, in Kaepernick’s lawsuit against the NFL, Nike is not only funding both sides of the war, but also the institutions at the very core of the suit: those that create, fuel, and enforce violence, both domestically and abroad. Meanwhile, Americans’ favorite past-time, selective amnesia, allows it all to go down like a spoonful of sugar to medicine. Nike is the Mary Poppins to our woes, except less fun and mostly just deceptive. 

Oh but there’s more. (There is always more) 

There is another moment in the process of supply and demand that is always conveniently erased and preferably ignored, as exhibited by a fun, excited, little individual conveniently named @leastracist: 

When Nike sales shoot as high as Kaepernick’s basketball (totally kidding) due to their intentional media buzz causing fans to buy much more than what they normally would to compensate and outdo the feeble attempts at a right-wing boycott, the demand for these products rises, and the burden of which is transferred to their sweatshops, US-based incarcerated slavery camps (prisons), and the producers of their raw material. Yes, sweatshops and prison slave labor will be producing Nike’s new collection with Kaepernick. People of color domestically and globally will be exploited and violence against them justified in the name of civil rights. 

Of course, the fact that Nike’s endorsement of Kaepernick is nothing more than a marketing strategy is not a new or novel argument, nor does it take groundbreaking investigative research to uncover. 

But what is particularly frightening is that this is not simply a marketing strategy. It is much more powerful, and much more destructive than that. It is part of a larger, decades-long movement of brands, corporations (and their philanthropic shields), and even some progressive politicians revolution-washing our movements until there is nothing left but logos and slogans as empty as our pockets and foresight. 

It’s like green-washing (in which environmentally destructive fast-fashion brands paint themselves as “sustainable” or “ethical” by creating one-off conscious collections) but for our movements, reducing our systematic approaches for change to pacification with representation, and movement building to celebrity endorsements. 

Revolution-washing is an incredibly effective and destructive tactic, encouraging us to further silo and divide our issues, become increasingly America-centric and exclude those beyond our borders from our consciousness and solidarity, normalize compromises that strip the very essence of our values to the tastelessness of white people’s “seasoned” cooking, and justify the exploitation of those who are not “in our backyard”. Essentially, as more and more corporations and brands attempt to “buy” their way into the “resistance”, the faster our movements compromise and crumble. 

Revolution-washing is externally not asking the larger questions of “who is ultimately profiting”, “at whose expense”, and “what are the larger, more complex parts of this issue”, and internally preparing your self for a slide down the steepest, most slippery slope called compromising. And your values are strapping in for the ride. 

Because the thing is, once we start allowing our values to become increasingly nothing more than a set of compromises in one avenue (such as fashion), this will ultimately become a trend that spreads to different avenues in our lives faster than gossip travels in Iranian dinner parties. 

And according to the Iranian khalehs (aunts) on the Whatsapp group chat, this wasn’t a great week for liberals. 

Another major moment of a massive values-slip in the left this week were progressive politicians’ somehow collective eulogies of war criminal John McCain. 

From Bernie Sanders to Ocasio, progressive politicians have “gotten high on their own supply” of America’s potent selective amnesia drug, re-writing John McCain’s legacy as one of “sacrifice” and “heroism” giving respect and honor to a genocidal war criminal responsible for taking the lives of 100s of thousands and demanding the carnage of millions more. 

This was a clear instance of a values-slip, at a time when it was not needed nor can be afforded. 

The scary thing is, selling-out or losing yourself is a gradual, typically incremental process that starts with a series of negotiations of values. We begin with slow, conscious justifications for why it would be okay for us to accept that money, say this thing, buy the swoosh, and ultimately end in a place where we have nothing but hollowed-out words that to us still seem to be the same from the outside. 

Most people don’t make the decision to lose themselves and what they stand for. It happens naturally when compromises reshape and redefine our values, platforms, and movements. 

If you claim to support Muslims you cannot be pro-war, or memorialize war criminals responsible for mass Muslim deaths. If you endorse a movement for Black lives you cannot simultaneously exploit Black (non-American) lives abroad and Black incarcerated lives domestically while also profit off of feigned support for both the plaintiff and defendant in a civil rights lawsuit. 

I currently have a lot of respect for Kaepernick and I hope this decision was not easy for him. I am happy that Kaepernick is getting a major check cut to him, as someone who has donated millions and is actively engaged in important, activist work. But unfortunately, knowing that Kaepernick endorses Nike is also opening the floodgates for other left-leaning celebrities and activists who might otherwise have heeded Nike garment workers’ calls for solidarity, to now also sign on to endorsements and campaigns with Nike, which normalizes garment worker exploitation and deeply undercuts the power of their organizing and demands. 

The same goes for our politicians. Calling yourself a progressive or liberal (such as Obama) and administering the most drone strikes and deporting more people than anyone else before you, sets a similar rubric of what is acceptable and will remain unchallenged. Knowing you can get elected on a progressive platform and then or say, go back on your calls for justice in Palestine or memorialize a sexist, racist, murderer (no, I’m not talking about Trump), normalizes war criminal eulogization in progressive spaces. 

This type of compromising (both on their end on their stated values and on our end for not holding them accountable for it) across industries inevitably leads to a complete reduction, destruction, and redefinition of our movements for tangible, systemic, liberation-based change. 

After all, if you lose your values, what are you even fighting for? 

So now what? 

Representation is important. Brands taking a stance is important. Progressive politicians should be voted for. Ethical brands are desperately important and currently one of our only few alternatives. But none of this will save us. 

Liberation will not come through a series of compromises within industries that rely on those very systems of oppression to function. Liberation comes from unapologetic, unequivocal, uncompromising values that poses a very threat to those institutions of oppression -- ones that cannot be made from within the system. 

We cannot allow ourselves to continually allow symbolic efforts to become enough, or even more important than or in place of, tangible change. 

I’m not asking for perfection. I’m asking that we work to continually shift our own understandings of the role of brands--be it a representative or Nike--in acting as the sit-in for our own actual organizing and work, and look at the larger system in which they are a part of producing and reproducing. 

I’m also asking that those with influence -- from brands to representatives to the people they sign -- can and should be held to a higher standard. I’m not asking for call-out culture, but accountability. If you claim to support me, people who look like me, and the movements I’m a part of, I have a right to question to what extent. At whose expense. We have a RIGHT and obligation to demand better and more, especially for what is attempted to be done in our name. 

These are not complex, difficult demands. Why do we feel like asking a billion dollar brand to increase worker wages and improve factory conditions (barely even reducing profits) is out of the question? If a politicians whose base is majority Muslim eulogizes someone responsible for their families’ deaths why is it unheard of to hold them accountable? Why have we allowed ourselves to set the bar so dreadfully low? 

As movement organizers, people of values and morality, people who stand for something: we need to set the bar, be intentional about who we’re including in our fight for justice, and frame the conversation before it is set and defined for us, before we are revolution-washed of our goals, ambitions, and hope. Otherwise, our wins will always be negotiations at other oppressed groups’ costs. And that’s not how we’re gonna get free. 

At the end, seeing the left cover themselves and their social media headers in brand nike because of the Kaepernick endorsement is much like watching progressive politicians memorialize a war criminal: it’s reductive, equivocating, and another compromise closer to a total loss of values. 

Just (don’t) do it.