Friday, June 20, 2014

What's next for the Washington R------s?


[Click to enlarge]

"It's chilling, because what they're really talking about is the result of centuries of United States policy against native people and the historical precedent of genocide. That argument speaks to the idea that people do not believe that Native Americans exist. In their experience, there are no Native Americans, so the only context you've ever heard that term is through football."
-- Jacqueline Keeler, a co-founder of Eradicating Offensive
Native Mascotry, to
The New Yorker's Jay Caspian Kang

"[Suzan] Harjo ["the woman who was the driving force behind the cases" that led to Wednesday's ruling] said her work against the Redskins name has earned her death threats from the team's supporters, some of whom she described as 'fanatics.' "

by Ken

It's important to understand exactly what aspect of the Redskin-as-mascot issue Jacqueline Keeler is responding to above, and we'll come back to this in a moment. But first we have to make sure we all know what this is all about. As Jay Caspian Kang explained at the start of his Wednesday post:
This morning, the United States Patent and Trademark Office cancelled the trademark registration of the Washington Redskins football team. In a hundred-and-seventy-seven-page decision, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) found that six registrations for the term “Redskins,” obtained between 1966 and 1990, “must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.”
It's not as if this hasn't been coming. That name "Redskins" has been an increasingly obvious target for some years now, but the mode of attack that has now prevailed, at least pending appeal, may come as a surprise: attacking the organization's precious trademarks. Note that the TTAB doesn't in any way limit the team's ability to continue using the name; it just means that none of those revoked trademarks have any protection, and you have to think that in the high-stakes world of the NFL, with the kind of money that's at stake (and remember that these are precious dollars that, unlike all the team's league-derived revenues, aren't shared with its NFL partners), the franchise isn't going to be prepared to take that kind of financial hit.

Of course the team is appealing. In an official statement from the team -- which is owned, it should be remembered, by the unspeakable Dan Snyder -- its trademark attorney, Bob Raskopf, said, "We've seen this story before, and just like last time, today's ruling will have no effect at all on the team's ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo." And he professes to be confident that the ruling will be reversed anyway.

What the team's legal team was up against in defending its trademark was the requirement that hurtful trademarks not be granted. Oh, the legal team argued that the term Redskins wasn't hurtful at the times that the various trademarks were issued, and so should be just fine. Then again, one of the legal team's most special insights, courtesy of lexicographical expert David K. Barnhart, was "that there is another meaning for redskin descriptive of a variety of potato. The TTAB doesn't seem to have been impressed.
It may also be a problem for the team that people who shout loudest about how they aren't offendin' nobody tend not to be ideal judges of their offensiveness.

Now to get back to the impassioned lament of Jacqueline Keeler ("a member of the Navajo and Yankton Sioux tribes"). She was responding to an argument eventually made by the Redskins that, in Jay Caspian Kang's words, " 'Redskins,' as it referred to the football team, had been stripped of its associations with Native Americans -- never mind the cartoon warrior on the team's helmets and the headdresses worn by fans."

JCK went on to say:
Such disingenuous, purely linguistic claims have been used throughout history to justify all manner of terror; to argue that the name of the football team had shed its historical associations relies upon a terrible logic that says that, because a group of peoples has been, over centuries, killed, brutally dispossessed, and internally exiled—to the point that they are invisible to many of the residents of Washington, D.C.—their history should be trumped by the history of a football team.
If there's really any question about how offensive a usage like the Redskins' team name can be to people who have the right to be offended, Business Insider's Hunter Walker posted a terrific piece Wednesday, "Meet The Native American Grandmother Who Just Beat The Washington Redskins."

The woman is Suzan Harjo, a "69-year-old grandmother and longtime Native American activist."
"Suzan has been fighting this since 1992. Native American people have been fighting this since 1972. ... The reason it has come up recently is because Suzan has worked really hard to bring this in the public eye," Amanda Blackhorse, one of the five Native American plaintiffs in the case filed before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, told Business Insider.

"She's just a tremendous woman. She's a strong Native American woman, and I'm so happy to have met her and to have been a part of all this because this is what we need to do," Blackhorse added.

Harjo was born in Oklahoma and is of Cheyenne and Muscogee ancestry. In a conversation with Business Insider shortly after the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office's decision was announced, Harjo said she became involved with political activism while she was still in school.
And she has been fighting the fight all over ever since, scoring victories along the way, but always with an eye on Our Nation's Capital.
"According to Harjo," Walker writes, "activists involved in the effort to eliminate Native American mascots always viewed the Washington Redskins football team as 'the worst' offender.
"No matter where you went or what was the mascot fight of the moment in any locale, everyone would always say, 'And the worst one is right there in the nation's capital, the Washington team name,'" said Harjo. "It was the worst one, everyone pointed to it."


The trademark-revocation approach was suggested to her in 1992 by a Minneapolis lawyer, Stephen Baird.
When Baird called her, Harjo said his "first question" was why she rejected using the Patent and Trademark Office as a forum to fight the Redskins name.

"And I said, 'I have no idea what you're talking about,'" Harjo remembered with a laugh. "Once he explained his theory, I was so intrigued by his theory. It was very different from the kinds of things we'd been looking at. ... It didn't interfere with free speech, it wasn't even forcing a decision. What it's saying is, 'Here's what the federal government will or will not sanction.' Because, it's the federal government's role to grant the exclusive privilege of making money off this name."
It looked like this approach was going to pay dividends as early as 1999, but the favorable court ruling was overturned on appeal because, as Watkins writes, "the federal judge ruled Harjo was too old to be the plaintiff and should have brought the case closer to her 18th birthday."
"We wondered if she wasn't, you know, a cheerleader for the team," Harjo said of the judge. "It turned out that she and her husband, actually they were regular attendees of the team games and her husband, his law firm had represented the team at one point."
Which is how the strategy of assembling a group of suitably young plaintiffs emerged.
Harjo said she was "very honest" with the five young people who joined the case about how difficult it would be to fight a legal battle against a pro-football team worth over a billion dollars.

"It's not for everyone and I was frank about the kinds of pressures that they would be up against," said Harjo. "They go through your garbage and they hire P.I.'s. It's a nasty business. They're mean, and they're big, and they have lots of money."
"They're mean, and they're big, and they have lots of money." And that's just the team itself. "In addition to opposition from the team," Walker writes, "Harjo said her work against the Redskins name has earned her death threats from the team's supporters, some of whom she described as 'fanatics.' "
"Even if I'm here working right by the phone, I do not answer it even if I'm expecting a certain call at a certain time," Harjo said. "We get a lot of hangups and some of those, I just assume now, are the death threats. And some of them are just – I don't want to hear people yelling at me even if they're not exactly threatening my life. ... I had to get a restraining order against one stalker who had developed a hostile fixation against me." [Emphasis added.]

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