A few days after gracing the cover of TIME Magazine, Colin Kaepernick appeared on the sidelines—kneeling once again—at a Friday night Castlemont High home football game in East Oakland. Next to him lay a few dozen young men in full uniforms and pads, flat on their backs, hands outstretched. By Monday, the image and a two-minute video of Kaepernick delivering a motivational speech in the locker room had gone viral. “You are important,” he told the team in the footage. “You make a difference. This matters.”
The team had taken Kaepernick’s lead a week before. Inspired by the 49ers quarterback, senior lineman Jadan Starks tweeted out an idea: “Why don’t we make a stand, make some noise and tell him that we got his back by doing the same thing he did.” News spread fast after the team and its coach, Ed Washington, were photographed kneeling together, fists up, before a September 19 game. A week later, Kaepernick showed up in solidarity. “My players took the lead, and I followed right behind them,” Washington told CBS News in an interview.
Whatever the outcome of the playoffs, Kaep’s stand will be the definitive story this year for a league suffering from waning popularity and a massively anti-progressive streak. The face of the league, which just settled a multibillion dollar lawsuit brought by former employees, plays for a team called the Patriots and keeps a Trump hat in his locker. NFL football is a spectacle in which the values of grit and toughness are purposely conflated with good old-fashioned nationalism, a relationship driven home by government-sponsored, on-field displays of military propaganda. It’s hard to overstate the impact of opening up a dialog about racial justice and inequity on the biggest, most American of stages.
Of all the responses the protest stirred up though, the Castlemont team’s felt the most powerful. Here was proof of just how much Kaepernick’s words and actions had resonated. The kids, inspired by Kaep, took a stand of their own and inspired him right back.
The Castlemont players, the vast majority of them kids of color living in East Oakland, were speaking truth to power, from personal experience. “It’s basically showing our vulnerability from them being the authority and power, and us being the citizens,” said Starks in September. A few months later, we visited the team at practice to find out more about what the protest meant to the young men who took part in it. Here, in their own words, is what they told us.
Denzel Mabry, 16
I think that we’ve seen a change in a lot of people. I think that us taking that stand made people look at us and made people think. The whole thing was about trying to stop police brutality and to stop the violence and the crime.
We want the community to recognize how we feel and the pain that we feel. And how we are scared to walk down the street. We can’t have that happening. Especially in this community, East Oakland, California. We want people to feel safe walking down the street to get to school. Right now nobody feels safe walking to school.
In your ideal vision, what do you see the future looking like?
I see the future as we, the youth, being able to change all of the police brutality and violence. We just have to do our part.
Will Perkins, 18
What did you see going on in the community that led you all as a group to take a stand as a team?
In the community I hear a lot of sirens everyday. And I have been stopped by police myself because of the color of my skin. I’m just glad it didn’t go like the others went.
What has the protest done for you as a team?
It’s brought more supporters to what we have been doing. And it brought supporters throughout the world. Because it actually went viral.
What compelled you to stand with Kaepernick?
What I have seen in this community, myself, is how police in the community will stop me and frisk me for no reason when I’m just trying to get to where I’m going.
How did that stand evolve?
Just looking at the platform that Kaepernick used inspired us to use the same platform of football to make a stand.
Israel Vankempen, 15
How do your peers view you after the kneel down?
I mean, they know I was supporting the right cause by doing it.
What did having Colin Kaepernick here do for the movement?
I guess he kind of forced it to happen. And he made people believe in it.
What’s your favorite thing about being on the team?
Just being able to bond with all of my brothers. Things have changed attitude-wise really. Before people used to have bad attitudes but now our attitude is way better on the field than before.
Dwone Elder, 15
How has the team dynamic changed over the course of this season?
Well, the team has changed. Because we’ve been working better together, especially in the summer. Because in the summer we weren’t really a team. But then once the season started, we started to build more together as a team. Because we began to figure out each other’s weaknesses and strengths.
What has Coach Ed meant to the team?
Coach Ed is a cool leader. He provides everything for us and does things that most coaches don’t do. Coach Ed is the resource.
Michael Bell, 17
What has Coach Ed meant to the movement and the team in general?
Coach Ed is a coach and a mentor. He’s not the type of coach that is all about winning. He doesn’t care about all that, he cares about us as individuals. He is a supporter a mentor and he just wants to see us make it.
What did you see in your community that made you guys want to take a stand?
A lot of black lives getting taken away by police. Black people, white people. There are a whole lot of drugs in the community. And people are just giving in to those things in society.
In your mind, how do you see police brutality ending?
Everybody needs to see us as human beings. If the white cop that is killing us just thought to himself, “If I was in this situation, would it be right? What would i want to happen?”
Then, I guarantee you that 50 times out of 50 he would think twice about shooting us.