Eric Reid says he can’t bear to watch the full George Floyd video, which shows the handcuffed black man dying in Minneapolis on Monday, while a white police officer kneels on his neck. The NFL safety says it takes him a couple of weeks to look at the all-too familiar viral clips of killings of unarmed black men, often at the hands of police. (He only recently watched the video showing the death of Ahmaud Arbery, the unarmed Georgia man gunned down by a white former police officer and his son).
In 2016, Reid, now a free agent who spent last the last two seasons playing for the Carolina Panthers, joined his then-San Francisco 49ers teammate Colin Kaepernick in kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence and social injustice. Reid has continued to kneel during the anthem during games, while Kaepernick, a close friend of Reid’s, hasn’t played in the league since that 2016 season.
‘It’s upsetting, it’s not right, yet it keeps happening,” Reid says about police violence against the black community to TIME in an interview on Friday.
Reid has seen the pictures juxtaposing police officer Derek Chauvin, who was arrested Friday and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death, kneeling on Floyd’s neck with those of Kaepernick kneeling in protest. The images effectively challenge selective outrage: how can one be so offended by Kaepernick, and not devastated by Floyd’s death?
“My experience with Colin and the guys that knelt with me, we said from the very beginning, the reason we did this was to shine a light on injustice that was happening,” says Reid. “Those who were supposed to protect and serve the community were perpetuating the injustice that they’re supposed to be protecting us from. Anytime anybody is murdered for any reason, this is unacceptable. But more so when somebody has taken an oath to protect people. And then use their badge as a way to kill somebody underneath their authority is just not right.”
Do these incidents leave Reid feeling even stronger in his conviction? That his need to protest during the anthem was necessary? “I feel the same as I always have felt,” says Reid. “There was a point in time when I was not aware of the innocent bloodshed in this country. And then I became more aware of it. That didn’t mean it happened any more or any less. It’s always happened. So I feel the exact same way any time I see innocent blood being shed, of any sort. It’s disturbing and it’s upsetting.”
“America propagates being the land of the free, and we preach freedom and justice and this that and the other, but who’s it for,” says Reid. “If America can’t take care of its own citizens, then why do we say these things? All we want to do is hold America to the standard that’s written on paper. That all men are created equal.”
Over the past four years, Reid has faced consistent criticism for kneeling during the anthem. In 2017, President Trump called protesting NFL players “sons of bitches,” setting off a storm of criticism and the NFL spent much of the 2017 season trying to quell the controversy. Over the past two seasons, fewer players have demonstrated. Given the unrest that has resulted from the Floyd case, might we see a revival of kneeling and other visible acts of demonstration by football players and other athletes, if and when sports return from the COVID-19 stoppage?
Reid insists he won’t be keeping score. “To me it doesn’t matter what the gesture is or what happens,” says Reid. “I want justice, and I want injustice to stop. By whatever means it takes. I won’t be counting the number of people who are protesting or celebrating that it was 10 guys this week, 20 guys the next week. I’ll be happy when we see a decline in police brutality cases. When we see a decline in innocent blood being shed. That is the issue. Unjust murder. I’ll celebrate when that stops.”
Right now, Reid could be challenging critics who questioned his patriotism and his need to call attention to brutality. When I ask him if he had any message for people who’ve come after him over the past four years, he tells me he doesn’t.
“We need to make police officers know they are not above the law,” says Reid. “That doesn’t mean I want to see a police officer die. That’s not what it means. They need to be held to the same standard as everybody else. And maybe once they realize that, they won’t be so quick to kneel on the back of somebody’s head.”
As for his own plans to keep kneeling, Reid says circumstances guide his decisions. “I’ve been asked that question a million and one times,” Reid says. “It’s a fluid answer. If something was done that would make police officers knows they are not above the law, that they would be brought to justice for shedding innocent blood, there will be no need to take a knee. Taking a knee was simply us peacefully using our platform to shine a light on injustice. Without injustice, there’s no protest. Nobody will be happy when somebody is murdered. But will people will be confident that when that heinous act happens, there will be retribution.”
On social media, Reid offered a pointed response to Vice President Mike Pence, who tweeted on Friday, “We believe in law and order in this Country. We condemn violence against property or persons. We will always stand for the right of Americans to peacefully protest and let their voices be heard.” Reid, and others, reminded the Vice President that he walked out of a San Francisco 49ers-Indianapolis Colts game in 2017 after more than 20 Niners players, including Reed, kneeled peacefully during the anthem.
Pence’s action was clearly staged. “You were singing a different tune when you rejected our peaceful protest at the 49’ers vs Colts game, wasting taxpayers’ money to stage your publicity stunt,” Reid tweeted.
Last season, Reid recorded 130 tackles and four sacks, both Panthers team records for a safety. His 97 solo tackles ranked second for all safeties in the NFL. Still, after signing him to a three-year contract in early 2019, the Panthers cut Reid in March. He remains a free agent. After the 2017 season, he filed a collusion grievance against the NFL, alleging that teams refused to hire him because of his protest. The Panthers signed Reid to a one-year deal in September of 2018, while the NFL settled Reid’s collusion case and a similar claim made by Kaepernick in February of 2019.
Reid acknowledges NFL teams might be even less willing to sign him because of the fallout from Floyd’s death, knowing that he’ll receive questions about the incident, that he could continue to take a knee, that he’s not a player prone to “stick to sports.”
“After we protested, Colin hasn’t been on the field since,” says Reid. “I set two records for the Panthers last year and got cut. It’s always been on teams’ minds. Will they say it? No, they will never say it. There will be legal repercussions if they come out and say that. So they’ll never say that. But their actions show it.”
Reid closes conversation on a hopeful note. “I think folks should guard their hearts,” he said. “Make sure your reaction to the evilness that has taken place doesn’t manifest itself as hatred in your heart. We need more love.”
I ask him if he’s directing that message to protestors who taken part in demonstrations resulting in fires and looting. “Look, I will tell no person what to do,” Reid says. “They make decisions on their own. I would just hope that people don’t hate one another. Nothing will come out of this, it will only escalate. People deal with their emotions in different ways. But at the end of the day, I would hope people are doing things out of love, not hate.”