Mission High School football head coach Greg Hill was looking toward the American flag when, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of his varsity football team. The players had dropped to one knee as the announcer at Redwood High School’s stadium directed the crowd to stand and face the flag as the national anthem sounded.
“At that moment it was powerful just to see that,” said Hill of the September 10 game.
The team’s resistance to the American sports tradition was a clear continuation of the anti-police brutality statement that started with 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick last month and has since inspired professional and rookie athletes nationwide to follow suit.
Students on Mission High’s team say that Kaepernick and their personal experiences with police inspired their decision.
The players said that the team’s athletic activism was initiated by 17-year-old captain and quarterback Niamey Harris.
Harris said that his community, the Bayview, has suffered at the hands of police and pointed to a December 2015 police shooting that claimed the life of another Bayview resident, Mario Woods. Woods was armed with a knife when he was shot some 20 times by police officers – a video recording of the shooting sparked citywide protests against police brutality.
“Mario Woods was personal,” said Harris. “It hurts everyone who’s around. It feels unsafe to be around cops.”
Harris said that that he wasn’t sure what would happen once his team got onto the field. “I took a knee. I turned around and everyone was taking a knee with me,” he said. “I thought it was an unbelievable moment. I felt powerful. “
Junior Marvin Pusung-Zita, the football team’s defensive end, said that Kaepernick had been a strong influence in making his decision to kneel.
“For an athlete with his position, with so much attention, [what he did] was amazing. I thought it was about time that athletes spoke about social issues,” he said.
Kaepernick first refused to stand for the national anthem during a preseason game on August 26 and has continued to sit or kneel at every 49ers game since. The NFL star said he is protesting police brutality and racial injustices.
Moments before Mission High’s players joined the ranks of many others who have shown public support for Kaepernick, a few had discussed their intentions of aligning with the social protest.
“There were a couple of people in the bus talking about it,” said sophomore and offensive guard Brindan Shepard, adding that he initially “wasn’t part of the conversation,” but supported his teammates nonetheless when the moment came. “We got to the game and then they played the national anthem – then, we all just took a knee.”
Since then, all but one of the players have continued to kneel with Kaepernick, repeating the action at a game at San Mateo High School less than a week later.
Senior Duncan Lau, the team’s kicker, said he chose to remain standing out of respect for his grandfather, a World War II veteran. “He sacrificed a lot for that flag and he lived for it. I couldn’t disrespect his memory for that.”
Instead, at the San Mateo game, Lau stood tall with his right arm raised and hand balled into a fist as a sign of solidarity for both his grandfather’s legacy and for his team’s resistance against oppression.
“I think the flag represents everything about America, whether it be the injustices or the justices – everything that people are fighting for,” he said. “I want to fight for both sides.”
Some of Lau’s teammates said that they have experienced racial injustices first hand.
“About three months ago I was walking with my godbrother downtown. This policeman randomly asked to check me to see if I had marijuana or a weapon on me,” said junior Cheeko Wells, the team’s running back.
Wells, who is Black, said that he has been affected by recent police shootings both nationally and locally, and that Kaepernick inspired him to finally speak out.
“A lot of people think that this is not a good subject to talk about. A lot of people are scared to speak up – me and my team, we are not,” said Wells. “We feel like there is no ‘justice for all.’ Until we see a change in that, we are going to keep on taking a knee.”
The team’s coach, Hill, said he remained standing, but “not necessarily for the anthem,” he said. “I wanted to stand being proud of these young men and represent them and what they are doing.”
“The national anthem and the pledge of allegiance is something that is symbolic to America, it’s something that is done in schools daily,” Hill added. “To take a knee is something that is starting to move across the country as a symbol of change.”
The players said that aside from a few “negative comments online,” responses to their action from their classmates, parents and community have been generally positive.
“They are all very supportive, especially my history and English teachers – They actually gave me extra credit for that,” said Wells.
“At Mission High for many years we’ve really thought about and supported anti-racist teaching, equity and social justice,” said Eric Guthertz, the school’s principal. “To see the students taking both what they’ve learned in their own lives but also in the classroom and playing it out in action is a beautiful thing.”
Harris said that his team plans to continue kneeling for justice with the goal of impacting their immediate community.
“I want to start with San Francisco. [I want to see] people coming together and not fighting against each other,” he said. “People being able to talk to the police officers and stuff – I want to make everyone unite.”