James A. Garfield High School in Seattle is a place where you can feel the history thrum throughout the hallways. Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix were students here. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on the grounds. It’s always been a fulcrum of debate, culture, and big-time high school sports. It makes sense that the first place in the country that saw entire teams take a knee was at Garfield. But it wasn’t all garlands and glory.
Their football coach at the time, Joey Thomas, was at the heart of what went down. He’s now coaching in Florida, and the first thing he said when we spoke was, “I saw in your email that you wanted to talk about Garfield High School and the process by which the team took a knee. What part of the process do you want to talk about? Do you want to talk about the part where they tried to fire me? The part where they tried to take my job away? The part where I finally resigned? We were the only school that unanimously did this. This came with a bunch of death threats and a whole bunch of other poo-poo.”
I did in fact want to hear all the poo-poo. To understand what happened, you need to start by understanding that Garfield is a school deeply tied to Coach Thomas’s life. He grew up in Seattle in the city’s Central District, the same neighborhood where Garfield resides. “For me, that is home. I played at the University of Washington, later transferred to Montana State, where I was an All-American, and I went on to play five years in the NFL. I came home after I retired due to injury and I went straight into teaching and learning. Yes, we won games, and yes, that’s phenomenal, but it’s about empowering the lives of the youths. Our greatest message to them is, ‘You are the future, but we have to grow you, nurture you, and develop you mentally, so when you leave this program, you can have a good foundation.’ School’s put in place not to educate. It’s to make you comply. So our job was to push back against that, educate kids and also listen to them. The thing that’s really fascinating is that kids are so much smarter than what we give them credit for, and if you actually listen to them and allow them to talk through their issues, problems, or their perspective . . . oh my gosh, the things you’ll learn.”
Coach Thomas’s thoughts about policing were formed by his own life in the Central District of the city. “When you grow up and you’re five or six, hey, the police are going to give you candy. You run to the police when things are bad, ‘Hey, Officer, I need some help, this is happening.’ I would probably say, I think that wore off around fifth grade. There’s not one incident, but I think at that point, you’re no longer naive that everything’s okay. The sky is blue, the grass is green, the police are the police. This is how life is.”
The process that brought the football team to taking a knee and making national headlines started with one player who came up to Coach Thomas the day before a game and said, “Coach, this Kaepernick thing is crazy. Man, let’s take a knee.”
Coach Thomas nixed that, saying that the team needed to have a conversation before they took such a step. Then another player during the next week asked about Kaepernick, and that led to the squad having a dialogue about what was happening. “We talked it out: What was he doing? Why was he doing it? What does that mean to them? You know, a lot of kids said, ‘Hey, man, I don’t quite understand it.’ So we talked about the national anthem’s third verse and what that third verse really means. I had them read it out loud and asked them, ‘You tell me what it means,’ because young men always ask, ‘What do you think?’ My job is to help them become critical thinkers, not think for them. I always said, ‘What do you think? Let’s read it out loud until you have a greater understanding.’ Each individual came to the belief that, hey, when they’re talking about these liberties and justice, they’re not speaking about me.”
The third verse, never sung before sporting events, reads in part:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
This was in reference to the enslaved people who escaped bondage and joined the British Army in the War of 1812 because of promises of freedom. The writer of the anthem, Francis Scott Key, was taking triumphant joy in the deaths of the enslaved. His joy may have been influenced by the fact that Key was himself a slaveholder. In the last two lines, Key takes a wrecking ball to irony by saying that the escaped enslaved people killed on the battlefield while fighting for their liberation is further proof of the glory of the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” As journalist Jon Schwarz wrote, “Maybe it’s all ancient, meaningless history. Or maybe it’s not, and Kaepernick is right, and we really need a new national anthem.”
The Garfield players, armed with this history, were ready to take that knee. I asked Coach Thomas if he was nervous before they did it. He said, “No, I wasn’t, because, to be honest, I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. I don’t think anyone understood what lay ahead or what would come from this. I saw it as an educational opportunity to stand by and support these young men as they grow and find themselves. I didn’t think it was a big deal. The kids felt like doing something righteous, and what type of educator would I be if I didn’t support that? They weren’t hurting anyone. It wasn’t damaging anything. It wasn’t disrespectful. It wasn’t harmful. I didn’t see the political backlash or the fallout that lay ahead. I just saw that these kids strongly believe this. I’m going to support them. This is what it is. If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong, but I’m supporting my kids.”
The backlash against Garfield detonated and it came from all corners: “We had death threats. The kids were told that they were never going to get into college. People said they would do everything they could to make sure they wouldn’t get in through admissions. I was called every name in the book. And my tires were slashed at my house. This is my home. My wife and kids are there. My residence! I had to move. I had to move residences because people knew where I lived.”
The school district, feeling the backlash, wanted Garfield football to stop kneeling. They blamed Coach Thomas, and he paid for it with his job. First they charged him with a bogus recruiting violation, of which he was quickly cleared, and then they tried to change his job title. Eventually, the harassment became too much and he left the school to which he had dedicated so much of his life. “They were definitely trying to force me out, one way or the other,” he said. Now Joey Thomas is far from the place he called home, working at Florida Atlantic University. “Obviously the stance we took was unpopular. Do I think it’s hurt me professionally? Without question. Was I hesitant to take this interview? Without question. But right is right and wrong is wrong. Am I still concerned about backlash at this point? Yeah, of course I am, because I already experienced it. It’s been shown to me what can happen.”
Coach Thomas said of his players, “Everybody’s proud they did it because we understand in hindsight that we were part of history, but it’s very important for people to understand we didn’t know it was going to be like this. We didn’t plan on it being like this. We’re just Garfield. We’re just a high school in Seattle, Washington, standing for what we believed in. Before we knew it, we were in USA Today, the LA Times, Time magazine. . . . Who saw that coming? We were interviewed for two or three documentaries. No one anticipated that. The misconception was that we wanted the attention. Man, we didn’t ask for any of that. I sure didn’t ask to be catapulted to the front seat. But I think it was a comfortable narrative for people to push. Here’s the key: it was a student-led thing, but it was convenient for the powers that be to say it was coach-led because then they’re able to give it a face. But when it’s student-led, you can’t do that. And as a coach, you can’t do anything but support your kids. So I think there was such a conscious effort to deface what was going on and put a spin on it. In the end, that’s what cost me. But hey, I would do it again. I’m always going to fight for what I believe in, but pushing what I believe was never the goal. The intention was to show these young men that they have a voice, that they are important, that they matter.”
Being attacked from all corners also brought the team and the school together. “Even though we did get support from everybody in our community, there was a long period of time when we were lonely and we were by ourselves,” said Coach Thomas. “I think it’s always easier when people see other people supporting, they jump on the bandwagon. But there were some lonely days, there were some lonely weeks, and there were some lonely nights. Before it was popular to kneel with Kap, we were there. And believe me: it was quite unpopular.”
Jelani Howard was part of that team. Seeing the gentrification taking place throughout Seattle was something that changed him when he was growing up: the creation of wealthy neighborhoods where he was clearly not wanted. Like so many young people in what we could call “Generation Trayvon,” he hurtled toward becoming a changemaker when Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman. “When Trayvon Martin was killed, that’s when I started realizing, ‘Oh, this is actually real.’ Before that, I never thought of police brutality or anything like that, but when that happened, that’s when I really opened my eyes.”
Jelani has his own narrative about how Garfield made their small piece of history. “Well, it first all started because Coach Thomas used to have these talks with us in the summer about what’s going on in the world, before we’d even go to practice or before we’d watch film. Trump was running for office and we were talking about what was going on. Then, during preseason, Kaepernick took a knee, and after that game, we had a talk about why he did it. That just led us on to other conversations. We even started talking about how other verses of the national anthem talked about killing slaves—we went into depth about that. It started with conversations about why we were taking a knee and connecting it to what’s going on in the world.”
After they took a knee, Kaepernick spoke about the Garfield actions to the Seattle Times, saying, “We have a younger generation that sees these issues and want to be able to correct them. I think that’s amazing. I think it shows the strength, the character, and the courage of our youth. Ultimately, they’re going to be needed to help make this change.”
What made Garfield exceptional—and what caught Kaepernick’s attention—was that, as Jelani remembered, “It was the whole team. Even the managers and even the cheerleaders started taking a knee.” It also made national news, but that meant a national backlash: “At first, we had a Facebook picture of our entire team,” he said. “People would comment on it saying nasty or disrespectful things. Then there was the one morning where our head coach didn’t show up and everybody was just confused. He finally got there like an hour late and he told us that somebody had slashed his tires. That’s when everybody knew, wow, this is real. People are really mad about us doing this. They know where he lives and decided to slash his tires. That really opened my eyes.”The team was united in wanting to take a knee. They also knew, based upon what happened to the football team, that backlash was a probability.
As for regrets, Jelani said, “I have none. It’s something that I’ll always be able to tell my kids. I did something that I will always remember, because it showed me that if you want to stand up for something, just go do it. Nobody thought that 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids would be able to help lead a movement. I had the opportunity to be in Time magazine, something that really makes me proud. I have no regrets because we had a motivation. We as a team wanted to see social equality for everybody because we live in a society where, if you’re a person of color, you’re already on the back burner. If there’s a Black person and a white person that has the same degree, same everything, that white person will make more than that Black person, just off of race. That just doesn’t sit right with me. I want to be able to change that for the next generation, instead of them having to go through that.”
Jelani also has advice for others thinking about stepping forward and speaking out. “If there’s anybody that feels like they can make a change in the world or in their community, and they don’t feel like they have the voice to do it, or don’t feel comfortable doing it, I feel like they should still try. First of all, the experience is good, to just see everything that you’re doing. Second of all, you have a voice and you should use it and you shouldn’t be scared of what people will say or what will happen, because there’s people that went before us, that went through harsh things, way worse things than we’re going through right now, and still decided to use their voice to make a change in this world. If they can do it, I feel like anybody can do it. You shouldn’t let people or a group of people stop you or scare you from doing that.”
Once the football team took a knee, it spread to other sports at the school. Janelle Gary was part of the softball team at Garfield High School that took a knee. She played on a select team growing up, and once an umpire made a snide remark about her being one of the few Black girls on the field. She was only ten years old at the time. “That is something I’ll never forget,” she said.
As for police violence, this was something that Janelle was always aware of. But it wasn’t until social media highlighted the killing of Trayvon Martin and other Black people who’ve been affected by racial violence and police brutality that it hit home. “I knew it was there, but now actually watching the videos myself, it just brought it more into reality for me.”
Janelle and her team at Garfield decided to also protest during the anthem because “our football squad at Garfield started taking a knee and they got a lot of backlash, especially the football coach. People were threatening the school and him and his children. We wanted to stand up by taking a knee.” The stage was set for the team to act.
“My team was already the most diverse that made it to state,” she said. “Being an inner-city school, we definitely had the most people of color. A lot of people thought it was a fluke that we made it to state, and we just wanted to show that girls from a diverse school could come together and win. We wanted to show solidarity, not only with Colin Kaepernick and everyone protesting in America, but also to support our football team and show that Garfield believes in this, together.”
They also wanted to bring what is unique about Garfield, a high school whose students and faculty are often on the front lines of social justice movements in the Seattle area. “Even at our school, like, for assemblies, our principal gives us the option of whether we want to stand or sit for the national anthem. We just wanted to bring to state that part of Garfield.”
The team was united in wanting to take a knee. They also knew, based upon what happened to the football team, that backlash was a probability. Therefore, it wasn’t a surprise when they took their knee and a lady yelled from the stands, “Shame on you, Garfield!”
“After that, a lot of teams were really rude to us,” Janelle said. “I remember us getting ready and warming up, and then during the game, one parent was antagonizing us and making comments every time we went up to bat. That was a lot for us to take in, being the most diverse team there and then having parents from the stands yell things at you. Even when we were done with the game, when it was our lunch break, a bunch of parents from other schools found us and went out of their way to keep on yelling, ‘Shame on you, Garfield. Shame on you!’ No one asked why we were doing it or anything like that. They just came and attacked us. It was really hard, at that age, because we were very emotional. We didn’t think that people would attack kids like that, as adults.”
If Janelle could do it all over again, “even with the backlash,” she would do it. “A lot of times in general, when it comes to protesting, people hear the backlash. People say negative things to try to scare you on purpose, but if you’re able to persevere through that—like in the days of the civil rights movement—I feel like you’re going to see more change. Nowadays, they are purposefully trying to stop a movement, because they know how big it can become. I would definitely want to continue and speak out about why we were doing it, just to have a better opportunity to get the message out there and get people to understand.”
Excerpted from The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World by Dave Zirin. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, The New Press. Copyright © 2021 by Dave Zirin.