On August 21st, during a preseason game against the New York Giants, approximately a dozen members of the Cleveland Browns kneeled in prayer during the National Anthem, making it the single largest anthem protest against police brutality and racialized violence in the NFL. The statement comes as Ohio is deeply entrenched in a battle for racial justice, where black residents are pleading with their police departments to stop killing them.
The National Anthem protests began during the 2016 preseason, when then-quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, took a knee during "The Star-Spangled Banner." In a post-game press conference, Kaepernick said, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder," in reference to police killings across the country. He said the protests would go on until he felt like the climate in the country had shifted. In the year following Kaepernick's protest, the Huffington Post reports that at least 223 Black Americans were killed by police.
As the 2017 season begins, Kaepernick still does not have a job in the NFL. Many believe he is being blackballed for taking a stand in a league where many owners donated millions of dollars to Donald Trump's campaign or inauguration. Players like Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Von Miller, Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett have come out vocally in support of Kaepernick in recent weeks. And his cause has spread — while he mostly went it alone in the NFL last season, this preseason has seen many more players participating.
Browns head coach Hue Jackson – who is one of the few black head coaches in the NFL – said just days before his team took a knee en masse that he hoped his team wouldn't have "those issues," referring to anthem protests. He later clarified that the team has "always made it clear to our players that they should embrace the platform they have as an NFL player to improve our community and use their platform in a positive, thoughtful and respectful manner," however, he said he had "concern ... about protesting during the anthem."
Jackson's concern was not without reason. In response to the players' action, the President of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, Steve Loomis, said that union members would not hold the flag at the Browns home opener on September 10th. He also called the protest "ignorant" and "as offensive as it can get."
This is not the first time there has been tension between the Browns and the members of the Cleveland Police. Ohio has seen other cases of brutality against black residents at the hands of their police departments. It's a problem that has been deemed so great that, in 2015, the United States Department of Justice found "the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment."
Between August and November of 2014, three cases were reported. First, 22-year-old John Crawford III was shot and killed by Beavercreek, Ohio, by police officer Sean Williams while holding an air gun inside a Walmart. Tanisha Anderson's family called police for help because the 37-year-old was experiencing a mental health crisis, and Anderson was killed by police after being slammed onto the pavement as her family watched. And 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by Cleveland Police officer Timothy Loehmann for holding a toy gun in a public park within two seconds of Loehmann arriving on the scene (Loehmann was fired from the department earlier this year for an unrelated matter).
There were massive protests following the deaths of Crawford and Rice. These cases were not the first incidents of police killings in Ohio, but the circumstances surrounding Rice's death – along with the fact that there was a growing Black Lives Matter movement to bring attention to police brutality nationally at the time – made them cases that many people were talking about. Officers Williams and Loehmann ultimately faced no criminal charges, which led many celebrities to speak out, including Cher, Questlove, Bette Midler and John Legend.
In December of 2014, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins walked onto the field with a T-shirt that read "Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford" over his jersey. In response, the head of the police union demanded an apology from the Browns organization, saying, "It's pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law. They should stick to what they know best on the field. The Cleveland Police protect and serve the Browns stadium and the Browns organization owes us an apology." Hawkins' response was that "a call for justice shouldn't offend anybody. A call for justice shouldn't warrant an apology."
And yet, the problem persists. Just last week, two grand jury decisions in the fatal shootings of Luke O. Stewart by Euclid police officer Matthew Rhodes and Roy Evans, Jr. by Strongsville officer Jason Miller determined that neither officer would be facing criminal charges in the deaths. The city of Cleveland is a majority minority city, and is over 50 percent black, according to the 2010 census, though they're served by a majority white police force. Both the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association and the Cleveland Police Department did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
It is against this background of systemic violence towards black and brown Ohioans that the Cleveland Browns took their knee on August 21st, a group of mostly black players who are likely no strangers to being profiled when they're out of their uniforms. Veteran linebacker Christian Kirksey led the sideline prayer session before the game, and says the participating players let Jackson know what they would be doing ahead of time. After the game, Kirksey told reporters, "He's our head coach. We don't want to catch anything by surprise, so we felt it was respectful to let him know what was going on, what the players were going to do before the game. We went ahead and told him, and we did it." He also clarified his reason for demonstrating, saying, "A lot of our guys felt that it was right to do something, and that's what we did."
That "something" included players Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson, Jabrill Peppers, Kirksey, Jamie Collins, Kenny Britt, Ricardo Louis and Jamar Taylor, who all dropped to their knees in silent protest. DeShone Kizer, Shon Coleman, Britton Colquitt and Jason McCourty stood with the group. The group who kneeled also included Seth DeValve, who is the first known white NFL player to kneel during the anthem. He said after the game: "The United States is the greatest country in the world. It is because it provides opportunities to its citizen that no other country does. The issue is that it doesn't provide equal opportunity to everybody and I wanted to support my African-American teammates today who wanted to take a knee."
Rookie quarterback Kizer, who will be the Browns starting QB this season, said he wanted to show support for his teammates, which is why he stood with them while they kneeled. "I decided it was a time for me to join my brothers who decide to take a knee and support them while they were praying," he told reporters. It was a significant show of solidarity from the team's new quarterback.
The critical response from members of the police department and some fans and media personalities to the players' respectful and peaceful protest, which occurred just nine days after the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, has reinforced the necessity of the action. Notably, Chief of Police Calvin D. Williams sought to distance his department from the statement made by the Patrolmen's Association by releasing a statement of his own. "Recent statements made by the President of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association would lead one to believe that members of the Cleveland Division of Police are against participating in events with our Cleveland Browns athletes. This is simply not the viewpoint of all of our officers," the statement reads.
On their Facebook page, Black Lives Matter Cleveland called Chief Williams' statement "laughable" and "late," writing, "neither Cleveland police, Steve Loomis, nor Chief Calvin Williams has done a great job with enforcing the constitutional rights of the citizens of Cleveland but they have accomplished to violate those rights in various ways." For their part, the Browns organization's response has remained consistent when their players demonstrate their right to protest, tepidly reiterating the fact that they respect their players' right to "project their support and bring awareness to issues that are important to them." The Browns did not return multiple requests for comment for this story.
On August 31st, the players continued their statement, this time locking arms and stepping forward during the playing of the anthem before their preseason game against the Chicago Bears. In Ohio's atmosphere of rampant police violence against its black residents, the fact that their NFL team is taking a stand matters, adding credence and urgency to what the community has long been saying. And the swift response from the police suggests that what the players are doing has power. One can only hope it will bring change that will emanate beyond the field.