About 10 minutes before San Francisco’s Mission High School football team was about to unload for an away game on a recent Saturday, the captain made a suggestion to everyone on the bus. “Are you crazy?” teammates replied. “Are you really gonna do that?” He was. And though no plans were set for what everyone else would do, when quarterback Niamey Harris took a knee as the national anthem started playing at the field in Larkspur, Calif., his teammates lowered to the ground with him, one after another, almost to a man—black, white, Hispanic, Filipino, Samoan.
Some of them, like 16-year-old guard Brendan Shephard, felt weird. “I’ve always put my hand on my heart and stood up,” says Shephard, who is white. “But then it got better as it went on, because I knew I was doing it with my brothers.” Others felt powerful, embracing the same method of protest as their hometown NFL star, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has said he began this trend of kneeling to draw attention to racial inequality and police brutality. Many players felt discomfort, even fear, knowing how controversial this act has become. They worried about how the silent gesture of defiance would be received by the crowd, not to mention everyone else they know.
Harris, a soft-spoken team captain, says he felt like a leader. “It felt like it was something,” says the 17-year-old, who is black. “This is something real.”
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As it turns out, there was little blowback to fear from their own community. Some of the players even received rounds of applause when they arrived in their classrooms the following Monday morning. Their coach, Greg Hill, chose to stand on the sidelines as he watched them kneel. “I know these struggles,” says Hill, who is black. “I was just proud to stand for them.” And their principal, a Mission High devotee who has the team’s bear mascot tattooed on his arm, says he views their collective knee-taking as the type of non-violent, thoughtful protest that he is “100%” behind.
“When you play a sport and another player is injured, you take a knee. If your coach is talking to you, you take a knee,” says principal Eric Guthertz, sitting in his office right before the end-of-the-day school bell rings. “So taking a knee to me is a sign of respect, but it’s also a sign of saying something different. They’re seeing a lot of violence in the community. … There are students here who have actually seen family members hurt or killed or profiled.”
San Francisco City Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents the district where Mission High is located, echoes those sentiments. “I’m incredibly proud of these kids for having the self-confidence and the passion to express themselves and to do it in a very public and unified and team-oriented way,” Wiener says, noting that young people in the city advocated successfully to get a measure on the November ballot that would allow 16-year-olds to vote. Like that feat, he sees the football team’s decision as a shining example of youth activism.
Wiener concedes that not everyone in town likes what Kaepernick, the domino that started this movement, has done, but he says the backup quarterback’s protest reflects the spirit of San Francisco: “People here may agree or disagree with you, but they’ll fight to the death to protect your right to be who you are and to express what you believe.”
Guthertz says he’s gotten zero negative feedback from students, teachers or parents, though the Internet has been a different story for him and for the players—especially after right-wing news outlets picked up on what the team was doing. For many, athletes refusing to stand for the national anthem, whatever the rationale, are disrespecting American troops and failing to appreciate everything that the flag and the song have stood for, everything their country has given them and others. “On social media, on Twitter, we read negative comments, calling us terrorists, saying we’re future thugs,” says Marvin Pusung-Zita, a 16-year-old defensive end.
But the team, having kneeled for two games, plans to keep kneeling. And that kind of action is in keeping with the mission of Mission High School, which sits on the border of two of San Francisco’s most famous, activist-packed neighborhoods: There is the Mission, a place long home to Latino residents that is undergoing painful gentrification, and the Castro, a mecca for the LGBT community. At the school’s main office—the sign for which is listed in six different languages—students of all shades filter through. One, answering the phone in English, flips quickly to Spanish. Signs on the wall list adjectives that define the place: fearless, united, diversity-driven. The school’s biggest spirit days, says the principal, are all centered on cultural celebration: Chinese identity, Latin dance and singing, African-American history.
The curriculum is aggressively “anti-racist” (there’s a new class this year exclusively focused on African-American male cultural identity) and students are encouraged to take action, after thinking that action through.
“Taking a knee is protected speech,” Guthertz says. “As long as they’re not hurting anybody else and not putting anybody in danger, they have the right to protest. I 100% support them in their action, not just in their right to speak but in their right to think through these issues and stand up to something that is impacting our community and our students.”
The San Francisco Bay Area is by no means immune to the racially-charged unrest affecting other cities. Mission High’s attendees have been active in the Black Lives Matters movement, reacting as many in the city have to controversial events like police getting caught sending racist text messages, and, particularly, the shooting of Mario Woods, a young man killed by police earlier this year. (He was carrying a knife but appeared to have his arms at his sides when police shot at him at least 15 times.) When locals staged a hunger strike to demand police reforms after Woods’ shooting—which they eventually got, along with the resignation of the police captain—students used the Mission High skate park to make a giant banner that they carried to the strikers at the nearby police station, where several people refused food for several days.
The school is diverse, with students coming from all over the city via a lottery system, and has an African-American population of about 15%, which is big for San Francisco. The size of the city’s black community is half what it was in the 1970s, down to less than 6% of the population. Of the 13 largest cities in the U.S., only San Jose has a smaller proportion of black residents. And while incomes for other demographics have been rising amid the tech boom—the median for white households is now more than $104,000—theirs has shrunk to less than $30,000.
Harris, the quarterback, is from one of the southern neighborhoods where many black residents have been pushed out as urban renewal has taken hold. For him, kneeling was not about imitating an NFL player or getting attention. It was about embracing a simple movement that articulated complex feelings he has about what it’s like to be a young black man in America right now.
“It’s hard because you feel like an animal, like people treat you like an animal. Police, they’ll come to your community and they chase you around,” says the resident of Hunter’s Point, an area near Woods’ home where about a third of residents are black. “You’ll be doing whatever you’re doing, walking home from school, coming home from football practice, something like that. And I feel like they treat you like you’re an intruder or something, like you’re not supposed to be here, and that’s not how I want to live the rest of my life. That’s not right.”
The day after the football players took a knee for the second time, Mission High hosted a Black Family Day, as they have for several years, meant to foster community. Among the keynote speakers was Dr. Rev. Amos Brown, a student of Martin Luther King Jr., a seasoned leader of the NAACP and a pastor in the city for the past 40 years. As he spoke about issues of race, he wore what has become one of the NFL’s hottest selling items of late: a Kaepernick jersey.
“This thing of race and oppression,” Brown tells TIME, “we thought we had it licked, with legal statutes that ended segregation in schools. We thought we had it licked when we got the right to vote and were seen to be human, when one time we were seen to be three-fifths according to the Constitution. We thought it was licked. But the patient is still sick, tragically sick.”
For other young athletes who have taken a knee near San Francisco, the little known words from Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” which have been circulating in the wake of Kaepernick’s kneeling, are specifically the motivation. “No refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,” Key wrote, referencing black men who aligned with the British during the war of 1812 with hopes of gaining freedom. This is what Rahjae Johnson, a football player who recently took a knee in Sacramento, says drove him and one other teammate to the silent protest.
“The gist of it is parading and celebrating the killing of African-American slaves. I thought about it and was like, why hasn’t this been taught?” says the junior at Harim Johnson High School, who is black. “I played football since I was young. I played basketball too. The national anthem is something that’s like a tradition. It’s played pretty much before every game. And it just puzzles me why we have never heard this verse of the national anthem … That’s not something you should stand for.”
After someone snapped a photo of Johnson and his teammate kneeling at their game and posted it on social media, the student got some blowback from a quarter he didn’t expect: a former Hiram Johnson coach wrote a Facebook post criticizing high school kids who were kneeling during the anthem. “Quit being a follower and be a leader and understand the great freedom you have because of that flag and the people who protect it,” the former coach wrote. “If I was your coach you wouldn’t play. … We wouldn’t trust you in a time in need because you would bailout [sic] like a little bitch that you kids are.”
Rahjae Johnson’s father, Reginald Johnson, says he is offended—and is clearly very worried—that adults would talk about kids like that. (Some parents in Texas have seen more explicit blowback.) But Johnson also sees his son’s decision as the start of something that could, and should, be more than a gesture. “I want him to know, you can’t just do that and not follow up with something positive,” he says. “Gather your friends together and clean up graffiti on the walls. Gather your friends together and do a food drive or something. You have to follow this up with something to show this is not just something to be cool.”
His thinking has clearly rubbed off on his son.
“I feel like as young African American men, we have to go above and beyond whatever is the standard for the average male. We won’t be more than a statistic until we prove without a doubt that we are beyond a statistic,” Rahjae says. “And that goes far beyond football. That goes into school and your community and everything you do outside of school, and what you do when nobody’s watching. That’s your character … Not just when you’re working out and you’re going hard in practice but when you’re walking down the street and you see something that’s not right, how are you going to respond to that?”
What do these football players think—or hope—their kneeling will lead to?
“Hopefully by athletes around the world taking a knee we could draw attention to the matter at hand,” says Mission High’s Pusung-Zita, and by that the young Filipino man means inequality in broad terms, like lower-income residents in his Mission neighborhood getting priced out. Says Harris, the quarterback: “I’d like to see police officers who come through the community look at people all the same.”
Their principal believes the action itself is a worthwhile experience. “I don’t know if they’ll use this as a stepping stone to think about other means of change in society, whether this means some of them will think about what they study in college that’s more impactful, what kinds of careers they choose,” Guthertz says. “Maybe the ultimate impact will be just how they carry themselves in the world, and that will be beautiful.”
There is some evidence that this is already happening. Cheeko Wells is a 16-year-old running back and linebacker who says “It felt like we finally made our mark” when they took to the ground (with the exception of one teammate, who raised a fist instead). Wells is also a young African-American man.
“A lot of people go against us because they think we’re standing against the flag. It’s not really like that. We are taking a knee against police brutality and for justice for all,” Wells says over the sounds of skateboarders in the high school courtyard, dressed in uniform. “They can’t put themselves in our shoes and what we’ve been through. … Sometimes I do walk out the house thinking today might be my last day, I might as well give it all I got. And that’s why I think this is so important. So, if I do die tomorrow, at least I made my mark. And I die happily.”