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Eric Reid’s return to protest inspired Carolina Panthers players and fans alike

“What I aim to do is empower my people.”

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On Oct. 7 in Charlotte, North Carolina, professional football readied itself to shake once more. Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid knelt during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” ahead of his first game back in the NFL. He was signed to the team after six months of being without a roster, and he’d spent the two previous seasons taking a knee in protest of the inequities black people face daily in America. There, on bended knee again, Reid breathed new life into the movement.

“What I aim to do is empower my people,” Reid told SB Nation following his second game back, during which he also took a knee.

Despite Reid allegedly grappling with ending his protest upon an eventual return to the league, he’s remained grounded in a singular belief.

“Nothing will change unless we talk about it,” Reid says. “That’s what I’ve been saying from the beginning. That’s what Colin (Kaepernick) has been saying from the beginning. The more we talk about why we’re hurting, as a community, the closer we’ll be to making a change.”

Such acts added gasoline to a dwindling ember. During a springtime of revitalized athlete activism in the last few years, protest in professional football became commonplace. This summer, after lobbying by President Donald Trump, owners called for players to stand during the playing of the anthem. Various penalties were discussed, but an agreement was never reached. Now in the third year of NFL protest, only two men — Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson of the Miami Dolphins — were left kneeling on the sidelines before Reid returned to the game.

Reid’s dissent caused uproar. There’s been a flurry of social media attacks on the team since his signing. The president’s personal website began selling “Stand Up for America” jerseys days after Reid knelt. And players noted the market for safeties fizzled in the offseason, calling it the “Eric Reid effect.”

However, Reid’s continued protest is viewed as a beacon of hope to some. Panthers players told SB Nation they feel emboldened such a man inhabits their locker room. Black fans who felt alienated by the league after its attempt to stifle the free speech of its black athletes have expressed their desire to tune back in, some donning turquoise Reid jerseys as symbols of support ahead of the Panthers’ game in Washington.

“I don’t use the word pride loosely. But seeing Reid gives you a sense of pride,” says Jibril Hough, a season ticket holder in Charlotte. “As a fan, he’s a Carolina Panther. He did that in Charlotte, at our stadium. He made history. It wasn’t a 63-yard field goal that got me excited last week. It was the fact that he kneeled in Charlotte, on the field, with a Carolina Panthers jersey on. That was a historic moment for this city.”

By Wednesday of the Panthers’ game week against Washington, numerous players on Washington’s team refuse to share thoughts on Reid’s protest. Alex Smith and Josh Norman both dodged questions on the subject, despite their outspoken nature about their beliefs on the topic in the past. Smith voiced support for player protests last season, while Norman criticized Reid and Kaepernick’s protest last month.

“I don’t have thoughts on that, to be honest. I feel like we have enough to deal with from Monday night and getting ready for this team. So I haven’t given it much thought,” Smith says.

Norman once again uplifted the Players Coalition, a group of players invested in social justice issues, backed by the NFL, but refused to comment on Reid. Wide receiver Paul Richardson Jr., however — who has been vocal about players’ rights in the past — shared his expanded thoughts.

“I think guys should be able to express themselves … All of a sudden it’s a big deal. I don’t really understand it,” says Richardson Jr. “Why are they making it such a bad thing? It doesn’t take nothing away from the individual or the game. We all pay our respects in different ways. The whole point is about our individualism. If guys want to, you don’t know what they background is. If guys from military backgrounds have no problem with guys kneeling or whatever the case may be. If he wants to do that, that’s on him. But it has been affecting people’s careers. That’s not my cup of tea. I stay out of it.

“It ain’t about me keeping my career,” he continues. “It’s more or less, like, if that was the case I got my second contract already. I didn’t kneel before, so I don’t need to start now.”

Fans dressed in black and turquoise litter Lot B outside of FedExField on Oct. 14. Grey skies line the backdrop of the autumn Sunday as drizzle criss-crosses overhead. The Panthers descended on the nation’s capital to play Washington in Week 6 of the NFL season, and it’ll be Reid’s second week back on the turf.

When asked their opinions on the team’s new signing, it became clear the base was divided — and that the divide was a reflection of Charlotte today.

“It’s an illusion of inclusion,” says Ash Williams, an organizer in Charlotte and coordinator for Sister Song, an organization fighting for reproductive justice for women.

Williams said Reid’s appearance in Charlotte galvanized portions of the Panthers’ black fan base. Yet, pretending Charlotte has become a beacon of racial equality is a faulty premise.

Numerous black people have been killed by police in Charlotte in recent years, most notably: Jonathan Ferrell, former football player at Florida A&M; LaReko Williams, who was tased to death; and Keith Scott, whose murder launched the Charlotte Uprising protests in 2016. And historically, the city has always ranked the lowest in the nation on interracial trust.

“Charlotte isn’t a different, better place. It is trying to differentiate itself from other places in the South. But, they aren’t addressing the racial tension,” Williams says. “Reid is another person lending his voice to this. And that will always be powerful.”

Kass Ottley, the founder of the Seeking Justice Consortium in Charlotte, agrees: “If you’re going to fight for justice, then you gotta be in for the long haul. This brother is one of us now. He’s a Panther. And we’ve had a lot of injustice here in Charlotte people have turned a blind eye to. Him taking a knee has really opened a lot of people’s eyes to what’s going on, and what’s going on right here in our own backyard.”

Inside the stadium, a Panthers fan watched Reid warm up ahead of the game. Christian Smith, a United States Marine from Washington, said signing Reid was something he was “praying for.”

“I’m in the military, so I get both sides of it,” he says. “But there’s a lot of oppression and a lot of bad things going on. Somebody’s gotta speak out on it. What better way than football?”

Another man at the bottom of Smith’s row vehemently disagrees in a Southern drawl.

“I stand for my country. I work for my country day in and day out,” says Phillip Newsome, a 47-year-old firefighter from Statesville, North Carolina, who has been a fan since 1995. “I have family in the military and they serve our country and they fight for that flag. He’s doing a job. He needs to stand up. This is not the platform to do it. I understand he’s getting what he wants, but fighting for that flag means more to me.”

Reid stares aimlessly minutes before the game begins, as a giant American flag unfurls in front of him. He is sitting alone as pyrotechnics and smoke fill the field. He finally drops to bended knee as fans point at him from their burgundy seats. Teenagers pinch the screens of smartphones to get blurry captures while dozens of cameras flash. Montell Jordan belts a crescendo as five officers salute behind him.

Reid does not move. He is steady, resilient under the howls. And when one considers the weight on his shoulders, the weight of his action is moving. And then it’s over. He puts his helmet on and prepares to grip a pigskin, disappearing into a sea of grizzled men.

The Panthers ultimately fall to Washington, and the locker room afterward is a jumbled jungle of sweat, anger, and clutter. Receiver Devin Funchess has been cussing for what feels like forever as reporters rushed into the maze of men.

Reid was quiet. The media horde ignored him after the game. Seeing no one surrounding his locker he grabbed his things and left before sitting on a chair near the field and signing some cleats while wearing a shirt that reads “Power To The People” in red, black, and green — a nod to the Civil Rights Era chant popularized by the Black Panther Movement.

Reid says he can no longer think about the comments made about him or the movement. There was an assumption that what he continues to advocate for has become monotonous, that people want to move on. Yet, he stands sturdy, still embracing a movement he’s willing to defend.

“This is Year 3 versus 400 years. What’s monotonous is how my people have been treated since they’ve gotten to this country. What’s monotonous is how people kill us and aren’t held accountable for it. We are in the infancy of making changes in this country. We have to keep going. If we stop now, if we ever stop, we will continue to go backwards.”

It is this conviction that caused Panthers players to seek Reid out to understand more of his position since he’s been on the team. If anything, Reid said he came to a realization in nearly three years protesting.

“It is worse than what I thought it was,” Reid says. “It’s 400 years now. It’s 400 years. And we haven’t gotten much better. It’s a long fight, and we’ve got to start somewhere. This isn’t the beginning. Folks have been fighting for a long time. We’ve got to continue to fight if we want to get to where we want to be. It is especially important all the time. We have to keep talking. We have to keep our issues at the forefront of this country. We can’t let it dissipate. We can’t let it disappear.”

Reid exits the field, his shadow vanishing into the arena. Marshall Newhouse, a starting lineman on the Panthers who sat during the anthem in protest last year, looked over his shoulder and notices Reid leave.

“He’s doing his job on top of [football],” Newhouse says, filled with respect for his teammate. “It’s a personal risk for him.”

“You think that makes him a patriot?”

Newhouse nods proudly, “100 percent.”