San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is featured on the cover of Time magazine’s Oct. 3, 2016 issue, showing just how far reaching the conversation started by his kneeling protest during the national anthem has grown.

Kaepernick’s protest was first captured at the end of August, when he sat during the national anthem of the third preseason game of the year for the 49ers. On Aug. 26, he protested the treatment of minorities in the United States, and police brutality. While he sat during the first two preseason games, he wasn’t in uniform and the protest went unnoticed. But in the month since his protest has captured attention, the message has been heard loud and clear.


We must understand what Kaepernick is protesting. The tension between black people and the cops is not just one more race issue roiling the nation: it is the key one. It is the central cause of black people’s sense of general alienation, the first thing that comes up when you ask black people why they think racism defines their lives. It was what the Panthers were all about, what gangsta rap was all about, what the O.J. Simpson vigilante-justice verdict was all about, and it’s no accident that today’s most prominent civil rights effort, Black Lives Matter, began as a protest against the cops. The sense of the cops’ authority as illegitimate only makes it easier for underserved black men to seek employment on the black market of drug sales. The cop issue helps destroy black communities.

Nor is any of this new. In James Baldwin’s writings from the 1940s on, for example, cops loom as ominously as in any journalistic report from last year. And this is why we must resist the notion that black people need to get over it just because the cops kill as many white as black people (relative to their population, black people are still more likely to be shot). In our times, the idea that cops simply kill out of conscious racism doesn’t really stand up–it’s a much more complex problem. But in black communities, communal memory of openly racist cops in the not-so-distant past is still a raw wound.

As such, frankly, whether we like it or not, the idea of cops as racist–held by many whites as well as blacks–is not going to change. Black history makes it almost impossible not to sense or suspect racism in grisly episodes like what just happened to Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla. However, all is not lost. If we can make it rare to nonexistent that the cops kill any unarmed people, it will save white lives and black ones alike. And what will seem important in the historical sense is not settling scores as to whether and how much things were or are due to racism and in which ways, but that black people do not sense the cops as an enemy. America will never make any serious progress on the race question until this happens.

This, then, is what Colin Kaepernick is addressing in refusing to stand for the national anthem. He is making a statement about civil rights and moral progress, and he is breaking no law. He is neither saying that he’d rather live in Afghanistan nor that the U.S. is a worthless experiment. He is thinking, and his critics might follow his lead.

Several players around the NFL have since followed Kaepernick’s lead to protest during the national anthem, and talk about the quarterback’s demonstration has reached everywhere from Time to South Park.

TIME’s new cover: The perilous fight. How national anthem protests led by Colin Kaepernick are fueling a debate 

In the cover story written by Time’s Sean Gregory, the magazine spoke with several athletes, including Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, New England Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty, and Cleveland Browns legend Jim Brown, as well as athletes in other sports.

“We’re not doing this made-up thing to get attention,” Jenkins said of his decision to join Kaepernick’s protest by raising his fist during the national anthem. “Real lives are being lost. Real communities are being affected. The negativity comes from people’s unwillingness to digest the hard truth.”

Accompanying the cover article in the Oct. 3 issue are three commentary pieces, including one written by Miami Dolphins cornerback Jelani Jenkins.

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Focus on Kaepernick’s message and not his method