Pardon JoLynn DiGrazia if she exercises her free-speech right.
The founder and director of Westside Ministries absolutely refuses to abandon Turlock’s onetime favorite son, Colin Kaepernick. The San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback turned himself into the national media storm du jour by refusing to stand when the national anthem is being played, and said he will continue to sit it out until the country addresses racial equality and fairness. In doing so, he initially insulted the military, though he later clarified his stance and a number of veterans now support his right to his opinion even though they might not agree with this message itself.
He’s infuriated law enforcement officers across the nation – including some in his former hometown – by claiming that a cosmetologist gets more training than a police academy trainee. (Which, in the strictest sense, is correct. Police spend six months in the actual academy while a hairdresser pays gobs of money to take a 14-month cosmetology school program. That stated, when was the last time you needed a cop and called a stylist instead? And officers generally take courses in advance of the academy and constant training afterward.)
Kaepernick also criticized the officer-involved killings of African Americans in the U.S.
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“There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable,” Kaepernick told the media. “People are being given paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.”
All of which drew widespread reaction and response nationwide, particularly in social media. Supporters say he took a stand by sitting and forced the debate in the process. Detractors – and there are many – call him everything from disrespectful toward the flag and therefore un-American to a hypocrite because he is half black and raised by white middle-class parents. They cannot possibly comprehend how a mixed-race kid who grew up in a lily white home could possibly have experienced any sort of discrimination. He should just shut up, some say.
We love that First Amendment, don’t we? Westside Ministries’ DiGrazia does, and that is why she supports his right to speak his mind.
“Lots of people here are really turning against him,” she said. “I’m not, and for lots of reasons.”
A couple of years ago, Kaepernick gave his blessing to the ministry to sell T-shirts and hoodies bearing “Kap” in the logo. They grossed over $30,000 for the small, local ministry that serves an otherwise underserved part of Turlock. DiGrazia told me she draws no salary running it. She also wants people to know he’s never donated his own cash to the ministry.
Her reasons are more personal. She and her husband are raising two African American boys, ages 13 and 10. She calls them her “grandsons.” At a meet-and-greet before a Kaepernick appearance in Turlock, he took an interest in the older child, Xavier. They played catch with a football, and he encouraged Xavier to play quarterback on his youth team – “(Xavier) was the fourth-string kicker,” DiGrazia said. For certain, Kaepernick made a friend and fan for life. Xavier idolizes Kaepernick. His bedroom is decorated in everything Kap.
“It changed something in Xavier,” DiGrazia said. “Now he can catch a 60-yard pass. He loves football. People criticize (Kaepernick), but they don’t see what he does when nobody’s looking. He doesn’t brag about it. That’s not the way he was raised. Colin saw something in Xavier – a need to be filled.”
And now that Kaepernick has the nation’s attention – and invective – she defends him without question even though she knows some in the community might stop donating to her ministry.
“I appreciate him speaking out for my grandsons,” she said. “I fear that some day they will say the wrong thing to the wrong person and I will be burying them.”
Others in Turlock, including the police, are avoiding weighing on the controversy. Gary Hampton, who spent over three decades in police work before becoming Turlock’s city manager, said he understands why.
“They don’t want the story to be about them,” he said, “adding that Kaepernick is always welcome in the city” and that Hampton and others would make themselves available to him to hear his concerns.
Turlock Unified School District Superintendent Dana Salles Trevethan is prohibiting school personnel from talking publicly about Kaepernick. That gag order extends to Pitman High Principal Amy Curd, whom I’m told was Kaepernick’s favorite teacher when he was a student there.
DiGrazia refuses to be silent, though. She believes he deserves support, not rejection.
“Colin, there are a few of us here in Turlock who still love you,” she said.