Opinion: Politically woke must get out to vote

Colin Kaepernick is back in the news. The former NFL quarterback became a polarizing figure a few years ago by kneeling when The Star-Spangled Banner was played before football games rather than stand with his hand over his heart like everyone is supposed to do. He said he was doing it to protest police brutality and racial inequality in the United States. After opting out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers, he has been pretty much blackballed by the league.

With protests nationwide in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Kaepernick has once again become a forgotten hero to many. He lost any heroic status he might have had with me, however, when he revealed a few days after the 2016 election that he didn't vote and "really didn’t pay too close of attention" to it.

"I’ve been very disconnected from the systematic oppression as a whole," he said. “So, for me, it’s another face that’s going to be the face of that system of oppression. And to me, it didn’t really matter who went in there. The system still remains intact that oppresses people of color."

That was foolish talk, and it came back to bite Kaepernick in the butt when the winner of the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump, made him the direct victim of one of his many personal vendettas, suggesting he go live in another country if he didn't respect the flag and suggesting owners "get that son of a bitch of the field." It's probably the main reason he's been out of work for the last two NFL seasons. So by not voting, the social-justice warrior helped elect the man who has done more than anyone else to destroy his career.

As I watched hundreds of young protesters on both sides of Tampa Bay this past weekend, I wondered how many of them, like Kaepernick, decided voting wasn't that important? Judging by the turnouts in some of our recent municipal elections, I would guess many didn't bother.

The turnout for Tampa's mayoral election in March 2019, for instance, was a paltry 20.4 percent. That was better than four years earlier when it was 12.8 percent.

It wasn't much better for St. Petersburg's city council elections last November when only 20 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Voter turnout is never high in off-year elections, but those numbers are ridiculous and have been getting that way for a while. Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco once said that one of the most disturbing trends he saw during his political career was that fewer people voted in his last election in 1999 than in his first one in the early '70s, even though the city had grown in population.

Those protesters who are apathetic about voting should know these are the elected officials who will appoint and monitor the police chiefs who make the policing tactics that determine how local residents are treated. They are the ones who will bring about the systemic changes so many are demanding. But it won't happen if too many of them stay home on Election Day, especially when it's never been easier to cast a ballot.

In addition to early-voting locations, you can cast an absentee ballot by mail. If you don't trust the postal service, election supervisors usually have dozens of secured drop-off sites where completed ballots can be deposited. There's simply no excuse not to vote if you claim to be about social justice and change.

As a black man who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement, I've voted in every election since I first became eligible in 1972. I feel I owe it to those who were beaten, jailed, and murdered to secure my right to do it. And I vividly remember seeing voting-rights marchers being beaten as they attempted to march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, not on a newsreel but on the evening news.

President Barack Obama expressed his frustration about this apathy trend when he spoke on March 7, 2015, at the Edmund Pettis Bridge, site of the "Bloody Sunday" confrontation between marchers and state troopers, on its 50th anniversary:

"If every new voter-suppression law was struck down today, we'd still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America's future?"

Good questions. I hope those around here who recently spent so much energy marching, chanting, and sitting in have some leftover to head to the polls this fall.

For more information about registering and voting, follow these links:Joseph H. Brown is a former Tampa Tribune editorial writer and longtime journalist, most recently in the Tampa Bay Area.