NEW YORK — On a crowded midtown corner, Kevin Livingston, a middle-aged man preparing to lead a rally he prays shakes the NFL, sat against a car on Park Avenue looking through designer frames.
Livingston and two associates were outside the NFL’s New York headquarters. He swore they weren’t there to protest — not exactly. The distinction is important to Livingston, who organized the gathering, and positioned himself as a peace keeper between people standing in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and the police who had given Livingston the space to stand on. He was trying to fulfill his end of the bargain.
“Hold on, brother. Before things start I gotta make a call,” Livingston said, trying not to ruffle his pinstripe suit. He dialed the local precinct to make sure there wouldn’t be any problems.
“Seeeeaaaarrgeantttt,” he yelled into his phone, his voice booming across 52nd St.
Loudspeakers lined the pavement between 51st and 52nd streets between hot dog vendors. Livingston’s cadre of demonstrators began to arrive. David Mims, who manned the camera that day, looked at the building and the executives pooling out with awe.
“It's amazing,” Mims said. “You know, the plantation environment that goes on here."
The group, spearheaded by Livingston’s 100 Suits For 100 Men non-profit, which gives free suits to parolees, are part of the NFL’s vast consumer base. Kaepernick is being blacklisted by the league, Livingston said, and he wouldn’t stand for that. The least they could do is stand in solidarity with Kaepernick, a man they said risked his career to make a statement on behalf of minorities like him. What they hoped for, Livingston said, is that the quarterback gets hired again.
"Everyday folk just wanna protest for him,” Livingston told SB Nation last week. “He's our modern day Muhammad Ali."
Commissioner Roger Goodell has said that Kaepernick is not being blacklisted by the league. While Kaepernick’s advisor, Harry Edwards, a UC Berkeley sociology professor and civil rights activist, agrees, he told SB Nation teams were “wrestling with issues that inevitably would accompany that signing ... will inevitably precipitate.”
So Edwards supports Livingston’s demonstration in front of NFL HQ, as a show of fan support for Kaepernick to potential employers.
“The message that Colin deserves to be and should be on a roster at the opening of preseason camp is legitimate — unless the league, including the Commissioner's Office, are prepared to argue that Colin Kaepernick is a worse QB prospect than any of the 64 signed starters and backups at that position, not to speak of 32 third string ‘emergency QBs,’ whose basic skill is holding a clipboard,” Edwards told SB Nation.
Kaepernick, who primarily stayed in Manhattan this offseason, was on the opposite coast visiting the Seahawks hoping to secure a job. He missed a cross-country demonstration in his honor. Beyond New York, more than 10 other cities held similar events under Livingston’s banner — from Chicago, to Milwaukee, to D.C., to Houston.
This rally was a window into Kaepernick’s off-field impact. Yes, this could all be fruitless. The power of protest can’t force an NFL team to hire someone. But after what Kaepernick did, many here felt like they should try to return the favor.
The relationship between Kaepernick and Livingston began when Livingston was on New York’s Hot 97 station with radio personality “Nessa” last November. Nessa, who has been dating Kaepernick since 2015, told him about Livingston.
Since then, Kaepernick and Livingston have gotten together twice for charitable work. First, Kaepernick hosted Livingston and his 100 Suits Academy students at the Know Your Rights Camp. Then, Kaepernick followed up by donating 100 suits for Livingston to hand out to parolees in New York. It was those actions that spurned this one.
Kaepernick invited employees of the non-profit to a private workout he had in Harlem. It reached Marc Clarke, a radio personality for 103.9 FM in New York, who spoke during the demonstration. The workout encouraged Clarke not only to come here, but to invite Livingston on his late-night show to push his message.
Clarke had fights with co-workers in his office. They had a common retort: that Kaepernick protested the wrong way. Clarke’s co-workers echoed several popular refrains.
They enraged Clarke. He felt that his coworkers’ thinking ran counter to what Kaepernick was fighting for.
"(Kaepernick) used what he had, his platform. Being in the media and having the luxury of being able to speak my piece daily on radio, I respected what he did,” Clarke said. “It's a big sacrifice. You might lose your job and fans. You'll lose a lot. Not many people would chance or risk that.
"For some people it's not about justice, it's about protecting your job,” Clarke added. "It speaks to how programmed we are. To criticize it, that's how we derail progress."
Livingston’s demonstration attracted other big names across New York, some with a history of facing police brutality and violence. William Bell — the father of the late Sean Bell, who was shot by police, along with two others, 50 times in 2006 a day before his wedding in Queens — came to support Kaepernick.
Bell said that Kaepernick’s stance indirectly supported his family. It saddened him that people don’t see it that way.
“I hope he knows he has folks behind him,” Bell said. "I've been suffering for 10 years without my son. Last year it would've been his 34th birthday. How do you think we feel? If people were on the other side, and it happened to them, they'd think differently. They'd wish they'd had a Colin Kaepernick."
Emerald Snipes-Garner — daughter of Eric Garner, who New York police choked to death in July 2014 — echoed those same feelings into a bullhorn to onlookers.
“Because this man took a knee for us, we’re the ones that have to suffer and not watch him play?” she asked. “It’s not right that these cops get to walk away scot-free after they killed these unarmed men, and this one NFL player that stood up for us is getting all of this blackball, all of this backlash, it’s not right.”
Etan Thomas — a former NBA first-round pick who played 11 years in Washington, Atlanta, and Oklahoma City — recited poetry during the evening. New York State Senator James Sanders remembered his time in the Marines and said he fought so that people like Kaepernick could kneel. He thought people might tune out of the NFL if Kaepernick didn’t play.
“When brother Colin exercised his freedom of speech, he found that speech is not free. Or maybe it’s free for everybody but not him,” Sanders said.
People passing through Park Avenue huddled to watch everything unfold. Their reactions were mixed. One man sprinted in front of every camera, arms waving, yelling “I hate everyone.” Tourists tried to capture the moment on smartphones. A separate camera crew mocked the chants in the square behind dozens of demonstrators.
Legendary New York rapper Rah Digga, who was there holding signs and snapping pictures, saw all of this as she pulled up on the scene.
“At a time when it wasn’t cool, you defied the odds, you led the resistance on the field and we are here for you in the middle of (New York),” she said into a camera about Kaepernick. “Trust me, your efforts are not going unnoticed.”
Before the rally ended, bystanders could see two trucks pull up across the street. Both carried LED plasma screens showing Kaepernick kneeling all season. Their message rang across New York in white font, bold and underlined: “We Support Kaepernick.”
As the crowd started to disperse, Livingston took stock of what had just happened. Before he was in a suit standing on a corner in Midtown, he was receiving death threats for organizing the event.
Two different people contacted him at different times of the day before the rally. One told him if he showed up on this corner “there will be a bullet for your head.” Another spewed racial epithets, saying “I kill n******” before hanging up.
"It don't phase me,” Livingston said. “Gotta move forward. I ain't afraid. Never ran, never will."
Clarke was walking away near Livingston, rushing to his 7 p.m. radio slot to tell New York about what just happened on this street corner.
“There should be more of this,” he said. “This is what America is based on: protest. It's the basic foundation of the country.”
By the time it started getting dark, Rev. Al Sharpton — a man Livingston knows and admires — commented on his Instagram under a photo of Kaepernick with a black power fist emoji, writing “love you.”
It’s hard to define what counts as success in this situation. All Livingston and so many others want is for Kaepernick to get signed, to remain a symbol of American protest and black life on football fields, and to share in the same spoils as other quarterbacks of his caliber.
According to some members outside the NFL headquarters, some employees from the league came out and privately thanked the organizers for what they did. Livingston, however, by night’s end was grappling with what occurred. It rattled in his head that the turnout could have been bigger. He offered a justification.
"When you about change, people are going to stand up. I'm more encouraged than ever. I'd rather have a strong 20 than a weak 100,” he said, though nearly 100 people showed up on the block.
"I'm happy,” he said. “For real, man. To be honest, today, I was only expecting me."