NEW YORK — Four days before an evening filled with protest, when 1,000 people gathered in front of NFL headquarters in New York City to show their support for Colin Kaepernick, their voices rising over the screams of “commies” coming from counter-protestors, one man, just 20 miles south, wanted to deliver a message from God.
As Pastor Stephen Green addressed his congregation in tiny Roselle, N.J., on Sunday, he traded his typical religious garments for a scarlet No. 7 jersey.
In speaking about Kaepernick, whose protest, which began a year ago, has led to the quarterback being exiled from the NFL, Green read from the Book of Luke.
“Out of the abundance of the heart,” Green said, “the mouth speaks.”
The NFL’s silence showed its heart, Green said. It showed it valued compliance above all else. It showed it would allow one man’s advocacy to result in his unemployment. Something had to change so that Kaepernick’s plight didn’t go unnoticed, but also so that this never happened again.
Then, Green crescendoed.
“God has called on the church to renew the heart of this nation,” he said. “Because a nation that God has given so much to ought not be able to treat God’s people like this.”
Between the hums of the organ and baps of tambourines, Green roared for much of the 17-minute sermon, his body, at times, writhing and twitching to match the homily. He spoke passionately about Kaepernick and what was to come later that week: the gathering of hundreds to rally and protest the quarterback’s unemployment in front of the NFL.
Kaepernick’s first kneel, one year ago this week, has aged since then. On Wednesday, Green and others gathered across from the NFL’s headquarters to send a clear message to the league: These people, these protests, are not going away.
What it also showed was a possible look at the future of the NFL. It has been a year since Kaepernick’s protest, and things are only ramping up. Every week there are more protests. There will be no normalcy, no apolitical football. In all the ways that Wednesday’s protest was about Kaepernick, it was also bigger than him. He’s now a symbol. What he started is sweeping the field.
“The NFL must understand that they cannot put a stop to this movement,” Green said. “There is something very powerful about players from every ethnicity joining this moment. Despite the blackballing that Kaepernick is facing, other players are willing to risk their livelihoods to exert their moral consciousness.
“This is only the beginning.”
Before 4 p.m., police had swarmed nearly two blocks around the rally zone on 51st Street and Park Avenue. The demonstration wasn’t scheduled to start until 5:30 p.m., but even then it was a zoo.
Moments before it began, protesters famed and unknown huddled in this section of Midtown, spilling out over the sidewalks. Kurtis Blow breezed by in big chains and white Air Forces. Choirs harmonized next to bicycles and Beamers. Colorful dashikis were in stark contrast with the “Make America Great Again” caps and scowls from white bystanders, angry at what they saw. They held their own signs, some of which read “Colin the Commie.”
Kevin Livingston, the man who organized the first protest for Kaepernick at NFL headquarters in May, couldn’t believe his eyes.
“This is beautiful,” he said. “When we started this back in May, we had about 100 people. To see the size of it now? Celebrities have caught on. NFL players are catching on. They are showing by example that we need to end systemic racism in the NFL.”
New York councilman Jumaane Williams felt similarly.
“Ah shit! We woke now,” he said into a microphone from the stage. “We been trying to tell people about this for a long time and they’re just now listening.”
Yes, the NFL is a business, he said. They can run it however they see fit. But because this isn’t going away anytime soon, he said the league needs to approach this as “a society issue.”
“It’s tough,” he said, about each NFL’s player decision to make a stand. “Some people are down for themselves. Some people are down for the cause. You have to have a conscious decision on where you stand. I can’t answer that for every man.”
Organizers from the Women’s March, Justice League New York, Rainbow Push Coalition, the NAACP, and many more flooded the stage. A rumor spread through the crowd that this was the biggest demonstration ever in front of the NFL’s property. Police were consistently pushing people back, trying to keep the street clear. It was impossible.
“Brothers and sisters!” Tamika Mallory, a co-chair of the Women’s March said. “I didn’t come today to play with the NFL.” Mallory has met with Kaepernick since his stand like many of those who organized the day. However, the point of the moment was made clearer as she spoke.
“I didn’t come out here today for one man,” she said. “Even Colin Kaepernick will tell you that he didn’t [take a] knee just for himself or his family but that he kneed for all of us.”
Weeks ago, when Spike Lee tweeted out a flyer about this “United We Stand” rally, it wasn’t just the excitement of one man. It was Symone Sanders’ intention. Sanders, a commentator for CNN and strategist for a Washington-based political action committee, wanted to create a policy plan that changed the way we see protest in football.
Sanders and the United We Stand Coalition formed over the past month. They wrote a letter and sent it to the NFL this week. But the NFL denied their request to meet and discuss the policy plan, which called for several actionable, concrete changes for the NFL to make. These included demanding a rule to protect players’ freedom of speech, especially in terms of advocacy, the establishment of a review board to examine issues of social justice, and for the formation of a group to develop programming for the NFL to reinvest into the community.
The Coalition says that the NFL denied its request for a meeting, though the league did offer to have the group join a larger meeting with several other groups in the coming weeks. The group declined that offer. Sanders said the letter did reach commissioner Roger Goodell, however.
“We are living in a moment where America is going to decide who we want to be across the board,” Sanders told SB Nation last week. “We’ve seen that from the boardroom to the field to the White House. So the people who want to take issue with protest, I’d remind them we got this country via protest. One could argue there’s nothing more American than football, and folks that suit up everyday are real people. They have real families. And they are dealing with the real things that hit people across the country everyday.”
Combining with Sanders’ initiative, the Congressional Black Caucus, the federal government’s black arm of lawmakers, is hosting a forum next month examining the topics of race and sports. Hakeem Jeffries, a black Democratic congressman from New York on the caucus, said that seeing Kaepernick out of the league and what that means for football is “disappointing.”
He agreed with Sanders’ call. Players, he said, should be able to embrace their First Amendment right regardless of how controversial their statements could be to some.
“These are challenging times in America,” Jeffries said. “It’s an important moment for people of goodwill including high-profile sports athletes to use their platform to elevate issues of importance to historically disenfranchised communities.”
Michael Skolnik, an organizer who has made social impact campaigns all over the world, stood with Sanders’ coalition that Wednesday. He, like many, understood the need for a policy change in the league.
The NFL is heading into another season where protest is going to mix with football. Skolnik, a white man, said what the NFL doesn’t understand is that there are fans on the side of players. And if the league ignores these people, it will lose a part of its constituency.
“The NFL has to recognize that this isn’t just about football. This is about human lives. This is about black lives,” he said. “I would love to see the NFL take more of a proactive position on the reality of this country. Not trying to silence players or blacklist players. As a league, take this issue head on and address it.”
Sitting on a fence as the rally neared its end, Ibtihaj Muhammad — an Olympic fencer who was the first American to compete in the games wearing a hijab — spoke about the role of athletes at this moment of immense protest. As she spoke, she held onto a sign which read “Olympians for Kaep.”
“Oh definitely,” she said when asked if she would ever kneel like Kaepernick. She explained that since she was in a smaller sport, her paycheck isn’t affected if she was to do so. But for the athletes putting their financial security on the line, she said it was commendable.
“Who better to do that than athletes and public figures who hold such large platforms?” she said. “This is how we create change. We are proponents of change by not just by starting the movement but making it a global movement.”
Kaepernick’s moment inspired part of the nation to begin holding challenging conversations about progress. It’s led to white players slowly standing with their black teammates and rationalizing the role of the white athlete at this moment in America.
“It’s not a secret anymore. It’s not a farce,” Sanders said. “This is another test for our country. If you’re silent on Kaepernick’s ostracism by the NFL or the continued protest of these players, you are sending a message that black bodies do not matter. You are sending a message that they are not worth fighting for.”
As afternoon crawled to evening and the bulk of the rally fled into the dark New York night, nearly 100 rallygoers were still partying on the NFL’s steps. It was a natural look: a scene encompassing the NFL’s changing landscape.
Walking from the zone, if one thing was made clear this day, it was that the NFL is unable to keep ignoring these people and their call. Organizers are unwilling to let Kaepernick’s message fade. Protest is back in prime time for another season.
“I’ll tell you, hell is breaking loose. We’ve been sick and tired for a long time,” Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP’s New York state branch said. “We will be here until hell freezes over. And even then, we skate across the ice.”