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United They Kneel: Colin Kaepernick's protest is defined by those who joined him

The QB inspired protesters all across the country.

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Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Illustration by Alex Medina

The men, white, draped in American flags, directed violence toward a black effigy in a 49ers jersey and a faux ‘fro.

“Tackle him!” one yelled. “Tackle the Muslim!”

It was Oct. 2016, and Erin Heany and Shaketa Redden had prepared for this situation. Buffalo was playing host to the 49ers, and several raucous, drunk, and white Bills fans were there to lambaste Colin Kaepernick.

The two women and their groups arrived at Orchard Park early, ahead of the “Make Buffalo Great Again” signs on steel trailers; the “Wanted: Notorious Disgrace to America,” “Hey Colin, While You’re Down There,” and “Kaeperdick” shirts with crosshairs on Kaepernick’s face; the “Stand Up & Shut Up” coozies; and the Kaepernick piñatas.

Before kickoff, they started marching. A large group of black and white protesters followed. They carried signs reading: “Buffalo Fans for Black Lives.”

“We saw this as a way to agitate and expose the racism and racist violence in our community,” Heany said. “And we knew the Bills’ stadium was one place where it would be exposed pretty quickly.”

They planned weeks in advance for Kaepernick’s first start in Buffalo following his historic protest. Redden and Heany participated in de-escalation training. They anticipated backlash. They wanted, at all costs, to protect the people of color they came with.

“At first we were pretty nervous,” Redden said. “The Bills fans, they can get pretty crazy out there.”

As the start of the anthem approached, they ran into armed men near the stadium. They said that members of the Sheriff's Office told them where to stand and threatened to detain them. Redden raised a black fist and kept pushing. They found their way to Gate 5. The anthem rang, everyone in the group of protestors got down on one knee just as Kaepernick did on the sideline, then hundreds of fans booed.

“It was pretty intense,” Heany said. “There were a lot of people, young white guys, who were being real antagonistic. Yelling things. Pointing at our faces.” Once it ended, “We packed it up and got outta there pretty quick.”

Kaepernick said in December that Buffalo was the worst city he played in. He noted a difference in perspective between “Black and White America.” He said he didn’t understand how White America didn’t understand him. He received death threats. Bills fans threw bottles at him.

This was the America that Kaepernick had exposed: two distinct groups that admired and resented him, respectively, for one 90-degree bend of the knee.

Across the country, it was the same. Headline after headline. On the football fields of Texas, black boys in Beaumont knelt and lost their season. In Charlotte, after another shooting, organizers faced cops in riot gear and knelt in front of a football stadium.

A gesture became a movement. Kaepernick’s protest caught fire in a way Americans haven’t seen in modern sports. The NFL has rarely been a vehicle for activism, especially for movements that have spread like Kaepernick’s. His protest would be copied and debated around the country for months after he was first spotted taking a knee during the preseason of the 2016 NFL season.

SB Nation spoke to a number of people who kneeled to hear their explanation of the impact one American athlete can have on the constant fight for black lives.

“When we look back, history will tell who was actually down for the people. You cannot question that Colin Kaepernick was down,” Kwame Rose, a prominent activist who was in Charlotte, said.

“This man has risked millions of millions of dollars in an effort to save millions of lives and bring awareness to the issues that people on the ground are fighting.”

A member of the against the Southern Methodist Mustangs marching band kneels during the playing of the national anthem before the Southern Methodist Mustangs take on the TCU Horned Frogs at Gerald J. Ford Stadium on September 23, 2016 in Dallas, Texas. Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Time hasn’t made Rah-Rah Barber forget what happened in Texas. There’s a soft shake in his voice whenever he brings it up. He has a hard time finding the right words for the pain he and his boys felt after their protest.

The coach remembered when one of his players asked if the Beaumont Bulls could copy Kaepernick. It’s impossible a youth team understands this, he thought. But the team’s parents agreed. The board of the league approved. Barber talked to his team. And that September weekend they all kneeled.

But after the protest, those who had previously supported the team did an about-face. “When we did that, our whole season changed. Everything,” he said. “From the top, the board of the league we were playing in and how they looked at us, to the actual league we played in. I mean, they ended up cancelling our season. They fired me, banned a few parents from coming to the field.”

Barber started crying as he spoke.

“It’s been a long year,” he said. “Phewww. It’s been a long year.”

The backlash was unending. Eventually, Barber couldn’t take it.

“We got emails. We got Facebook messages. One said ‘All the coaches need to be hung. This is Southeast Texas, recognize where you at,’” he said.

Kids were horrified. People threatened to burn the boys alive, hang them, and shoot them. After 30-40 messages Barber stopped reading.

That same September, on Nebraska’s campus, Michael Rose-Ivey and two other Husker football players returned from a game at Northwestern, where they didn’t stand during the anthem.

Rose-Ivey’s Facebook and Twitter inboxes erupted. One message read: “You are a clueless and confused nigger.” Another: “You should be kicked off the team or suspended.” Another fan told him that if he didn’t want to stand he “should be hung before the anthem” of their next game, a message he re-read to reporters between painful exhales.

“It’s weird, man. I expected this. I know where I’m at. I’m not ignorant,” Rose-Ivey said. “I’ve tried to prepare myself, but you can never prepare yourself for people telling you they want you to die.”

The unceasing responses caused his co-protesters, Mo Berry and DaiShon Neal, to never kneel again. Rose-Ivey got “mad as hell” because, he said, he never considered stopping.

When the season ended, Rose-Ivey went un-drafted. Numerous classmates unfriended him. Someone removed his face from the team’s senior picture in Memorial Stadium. He experienced something similar to what Kaepernick felt after his game in Buffalo — an othering effect that made him feel lonely and misunderstood, though he believed his fight was just.

“I’d be stupid not to believe that that has any reason to do with why I am a free agent,” Rose-Ivey said.

A BTN videographer records Wisconsin Badgers forward Nigel Hayes as he stands behind his teammates during the playing of the National Anthem before the game with the Michigan Wolverines at the Kohl Center.  Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

“It’s unfortunate that I have to pick between wanting to be a good person and fight for other people’s rights and want to play football,” he added. “I understand you wanna be entertained. At the same time, those four hours on Sunday don’t match the 24 hours each day I have to spend being black outside of that helmet.”

At Tulsa University, Keanu Hill, a starting cornerback, believed he could play in the NFL. After he kneeled on 9/11 weekend, his parents thought he had jeopardized his future. His friends warned him after his protest that any pro plans he had may fizzle out.

Responses like that, which he received for months, “proves the point to why I protested,” he said.

“Shit, it was easy for me. At that point, everyone knows what it represents,” Hill said. “We ain’t trying to disrespect anyone. All [Kaepernick] did, all we did was take a knee. He told the world how he felt and we related to that.”

In November, University of Wisconsin basketball players Nigel Hayes and Jordan Hill took their stand. The pair stood back from their teammates on the foul line in the Kohl Center during preseason and kept their heads down as the anthem played.

Hayes could hear one man shouting at him.

“Nigel! Stand on the line!”

“That guy lucky my momma not here,” Hayes laughed, telling Hill.

Hayes also went undrafted in June. The reasons why, he said, are unclear. He’s on a partially guaranteed deal with the Knicks.

Hayes, who has been a target of criticism by college sports fans for speaking out in favor of compensation for college athletes and for racial equality, admired Kaepernick’s yearlong defiance.

“He not only stirred the pot, he kicked it off the damn stove,” Hayes said. “It really struck a nerve with white viewers.”

Like many, Hayes compared this era of protest to the Civil Rights Movement. The backlash they received was a side-effect of progress. America, Hayes said, needed someone like Kaepernick to spark a movement like this.

“This is an example of a modern Million Man March,” Hayes said. “Except, it’s a Million Tweet March.”

 The Indiana Fever kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Phoenix Mercury during Round One of the 2016 WNBA Playoffs on September 21, 2016 Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Kaepernick is hardly the first person to recognize the inherent connection between America and racism. Nor is he the first athlete to take issue with the anthem.

In Sept. 1960, James Timothy “Mudcat” Grant, a black pitcher for Cleveland, got into an argument with bullpen coach Ted Wilks, one of the heroes of the Cardinals 1944 championship team.

Grant was singing the anthem before a game, but he decided to change some words.

“When it got to that part ‘home of the brave and land of the free’ I sang something like ‘this land is not so free. I can’t even go to Mississippi,’” Grant told The Cleveland Plain-Dealer in 1960.

“Wilks heard me and called me a (racial) name. I got so mad I couldn’t hold myself back. I told him that Texas is worse than Russia. Then I walked straight into the clubhouse.”

Cleveland suspended Grant for the season without pay. Wilks tried apologizing but Grant was boiling.

“I’m sick of hearing remarks about colored people,” he said. “I don’t have to stand there and take it.”

After Grant, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, track athletes, stood on the medal stand during the 1968 Summer Olympics. They gave black power salutes while wearing black gloves during the anthem.

The International Olympic Committee banned them from competition. They were removed from the Olympic Village. Americans in the sixties, then grappling with the Civil Rights Era, shunned the pair.

“He’s a sacrificial lamb today,” Carlos said about Kaepernick on Joe Madison’s “The Black Eagle” radio show. “These young individuals, they’re the fruit of our labor. If they thought we were bad 50 years ago, in terms of expressing ourselves, just wait. They got a lot more to come with these young black kids in America today.”

Political protest in sports following the Civil Rights Era came frequently: Muhammad Ali nearly lost his career and freedom protesting the Vietnam War, Jim Brown held the “Ali Summit” and created the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, Craig Hodges handed a letter to the president outlining racial inequality, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand during the anthem, and Toni Smith-Thompson turned her back to the flag while the anthem played for every game of her senior basketball season.

One of the more recent stands was the University of Missouri’s 2015 protests against campus discrimination. One student went on a hunger strike until other black students’ issues were resolved. The football team decided it wouldn’t practice or play until high-ranking officials resigned.

The next day: The president and chancellor quit. It was a shining moment that showed the power athletes had in political discourse.

“Seeing what Kaepernick was going through brings back so many flashbacks to Mizzou,” Kandice Head, a Mizzou alum who shaped communications strategy for the protests, said.

“Mizzou taught me a very powerful thing about the status quo and what happens when you threaten it,” she said. “It’s literally a bubble. And when you penetrate that bubble you un-tap an unimaginable side of people. You see all sorts of anger, defensiveness and fragility.”

Head understands the stakes Kaepernick faced with his protest. During the protests at Mizzou, her brother was the president of the student body and she was a prominent voice during the campus’ struggles. Journalists attempting to discredit her, she said, dug through her family’s financial records to paint her as a picture of privilege and not alleged struggle.

To reach portions of White America, she said, sometimes you have to go to desperate lengths to make them aware. As Kaepernick faces the fact that he may never play in the NFL again, Head said his sacrifice is an example of the lengths it takes to make America understand the daily suffering of its non-white citizens.

“Athletes are more than just athletes,” Head said. “They’re people with thoughts and feelings and beliefs. These protests should’ve shown people there are still issues in America and we don’t get to just leave it to lawmakers and leaders to say something is wrong. We all have a say. Athletes included. Students included. We all have a say.”

Kaepernick’s protest was displayed on Sundays, but it was bolstered by philanthropy. Along with leading a rebuilding 49ers team, he managed to carry out a $1 million pledge to grassroots organizations.

It started in San Jose with Silicon Valley De-Bug. Kaepernick gave $25,000 for projects the organization otherwise wouldn’t have.

Kaepernick did more than give money. He invited the organization to his first Know Your Rights Camp, where he set up chairs, interacted with kids, and sat in on every workshop. He also purchased backpacks and filled them with books. Each kid received a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

The specificity of the organizations that Kaepernick selected stuck out to Joo-Hyun Kang, too. She is the Director of Communities United for Police Reform in New York, which also received $25,000 from Kaepernick.

“It shows a level of thoughtfulness,” Kang said. She explained that oftentimes athletes and celebrities (think Michael Jordan) make one large donation to a reputable organization and do a press run associated with it. “It’s the inspiration and validation that his contribution made. We were surprised he had even heard of us.”

“From the smallest detail to, say, a donation of where the money’s going, there’s complete consistency and symmetry about [his philanthropy],” Raj Jayadev, a coordinator at Silicon Valley De-Bug, said.

Some groups Kaepernick donated to were forged out of tragedy. Collette Flanagan founded Mothers Against Police Brutality after her son, Clinton Allen, was killed by Dallas police in 2013.

“Clinton was shot seven times,” she said, her tone steady. “Once in the back, and he was unarmed.”

Flanagan uses her organization to help victims of police brutality and mothers fight for police accountability and reform. Kaepernick’s donation to the organization helped families travel to an annual event where the afflicted can vent about police violence.

As NFL teams reportedly try to make Kaepernick choose between protest and football, he’s shown, emphatically, that he can do both.

“It is a calling,” Flanagan said. “It is something that was assigned. It is a task, a tedious task that was assigned to him by a higher power.”

On a warm day in Manhattan last May, Kevin Livingston spent hours on a Midtown corner trying to get people in front of NFL headquarters to care about Kaepernick. It was one of several rallies Livingston organized nationwide to show support for the unemployed quarterback and demand his return to the NFL.

Livingston said the idea came together because “everyday folk just want to protest for him.” Kaepernick had donated to Livingston’s organization called 100 Suits.

“He took a knee, got beat up, and cashed out and everything else for your right. For them to know that you matter,” Livingston said.

The fact that nearly a year after Kaepernick first took a knee, folks feel close to Kaepernick’s protest shows its power. It’s a sign that kneeling worked and that conversations about racial inequality are bubbling to the surface.

Thomas Mitzel, the president of Dickinson State University in North Dakota, created a space for these conversations after five Dickinson State football players protested last season.

People in Dickinson didn’t know what to make of the display. Mitzel wanted them to understand why the five black athletes did what they did. He created a once-a-month, on-campus forum where students and residents could have open conversations about divisive topics.

“Too many times, when protests arise, you get lines drawn in the sand,” Mitzel said. “I didn’t think that would be healthy for our students, our university, or our region.

“These issues will not go away on their own,” Mitzel added. “They will only go away when people come together and begin to talk about the underlying areas and issues that are causing these protests.”

After Livingston’s demonstration in Manhattan, he spoke to a new parolee for his program. The recently released man heard about Kaepernick’s fight. When Livingston told him that Kaepernick had partnered with his organization, the parolee’s eyes lit up.

“After all the cameras went away, the activism and the fire to make sure that we stand with this brother is still there,” Livingston said. “And that right there is something that’s a driver for me.”

In an era filled with a never-ending fight for black lives, no one’s message was louder.

“It’s not a secret anymore,” Keanu Hill said. “It feels like people aren’t scared to have that conversation. The question is: What are we going to do next?”