An 'eerie' parallel of two knees: George Floyd's death renews debate on Kaepernick protest

The quarterback sparked a movement by taking a knee to protest police brutality.

June 3, 2020, 5:13 AM

Protests against the deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of law enforcement have often revived conversations surrounding Colin Kaepernick, but the killing last week of George Floyd has brought Kaepernick back into the debate in a stark way.

The images of a police officer kneeling on Floyd's neck as the Minnesota man called out that he can't breathe have sparked advocates, athletes and celebrities to draw a direct visual parallel to Kaepernick's kneeling protest against police brutality, with side-by-side photos going viral on social media.

LeBron James was among those to share the parallel images on Instagram, topped with the words, "This … is why."

"Do you understand NOW!!??!!?? Or is it still blurred to you??" the Los Angeles Lakers star wrote in the caption. Printouts of that same image have also been held up during protests around the country.

Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, became the first NFL player to take a knee on the football field during the playing of the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality.

"It's this sort of eerie similarity in the position that Kaepernick physically took, and the position that the officer had assumed on the neck and the head of George Floyd," Marc Lamont Hill, an activist and professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University, told ABC News.

"It was almost like the flip side of it, that Kaepernick was taking a knee for justice and this man was taking a knee in ending the life of a black man in the very fashion that Colin Kaepernick was protesting and trying to put a spotlight on," he said.

Amid the unrest, even some police officers and top brass have taken a knee in the streets alongside protesters in solidarity against the killings of unarmed black people.

PHOTO: Santa Cruz, Calif., Police Chief Andy Mills, right, and Santa Cruz Mayor Justin Cummings, center, take a knee along with hundreds gathered on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz, May 30, 2020.
Santa Cruz, Calif., Police Chief Andy Mills, right, and Santa Cruz Mayor Justin Cummings, center, take a knee along with hundreds gathered on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz, May 30, 2020, to honor the memory of George Floyd and bring attention to police violence against black people.
Shmuel Thaler/AP

Floyd was apprehended by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last Monday. According to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's office, Floyd's death was a homicide caused by "a cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained by law enforcement officer(s)."

An independent autopsy ordered by George Floyd's family found his death was a "homicide caused by asphyxia due to neck and back compression that led to a lack of blood flow to the brain," according to early findings from the examination released Monday.

Derek Chauvin, who was fired from the Minneapolis Police following the incident, has been charged with third-degree murder in connection with Floyd's death. Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, including about three minutes while Floyd was unresponsive, according to court documents.

Three other officers who were on the scene -- Thomas Lane, J.A. Kueng and Tou Thao -- have not been charged but an investigation is still ongoing, according to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.

"You can't stop thinking about that," said sports journalist and ABC News contributor Christine Brennan. "The side-by-side visuals are everything, and because we are such a visual society, because photos and video matters so much to us ... that then brings Colin Kaepernick back into the conversation in a big way. If people had forgotten him or pushed him out of their memory, [Kaepernick] has come flooding back because of the visual, and then because he was right."

In an image made from video posted to Facebook, a Minneapolis police officer kneels on the neck of a man identified by a family attorney as George Floyd, May 25, 2020. Floyd died shortly after the incident.
Darnella Frazier via Storyful

Kaepernick, who hasn't played in the NFL since 2016, sparked a movement after first taking a knee on the field in August 2016, with several other athletes following his example -- the first of which was then-teammate Eric Reid. It is widely viewed that Kaepernick was blacklisted from the NFL due to his on-field protest.

Over the past couple of seasons, on-field protests have waned, but Reid -- along with players Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson -- has continued to take a knee.

Brennan said we "don't know" whether this wave of protests will have an impact on the football field this coming season, but she is "stunned" the NFL has not signed Kaepernick. "One would think that a team would want to sign him if only for the symbolism of the message that would be set, especially to young people," she said.

Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers kneels for the National Anthem before their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Levi's Stadium, Oct. 23, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images, FILE

Kaepernick filed a grievance against league owners in 2017 alleging that they colluded to ensure that he remained unsigned. The lawsuit has been settled.

The NFL on Saturday released a statement from commissioner Roger Goodell, who offered condolences to the family of George Floyd and said that the league was "greatly saddened by the tragic events" amid nationwide protests.

"The protesters' reactions to these incidents reflect the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel," Goodell wrote, adding that the protests "underscore" that "there remains much more to do as a country and as a league."

Hill noted that the statement "didn't offer any criticism, any outrage" and did not mention "the killing of anybody" or words like "racism" or "police violence."

Reid, who is now a free agent, and Stills both criticized the statement, with Reid appearing to mock the NFL's social change initiative, which was launched in January 2019 amid mounting backlash over Kaepernick's absence.

Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem prior to playing the Los Angeles Rams in their NFL game at Levi's Stadium, Sept. 12, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Through the initiative, the NFL partnered with the Players Coalition and other organizations, including Jay-Z's Roc Nation, on social justice campaigns.

But with Kaepernick still unsigned, those efforts have been viewed as an effort to save face by activists and players who have continued to take a knee.

Hill said the NFL's statement during the protests is in "sharp contrast" to how Kaepernick has been treated.

"He became persona non grata in the NFL. He was treated as an enemy of the state, and I mean that quite literally when you look at the response of Donald Trump to him," Hill said. "Donald Trump had more words of outrage for Kaepernick than he did for the killer, the killer of George Floyd."

Asked about the criticism, a spokesperson for the NFL told ABC News on Tuesday that league is "in daily contact with our national social justice partners to listen, understand and generate new ideas of how we can help use the platform of the NFL to help improve relations with law enforcement. We are working closely with the clubs and players to provide more grants and programs that can be adapted in local communities."

"Our clubs and players have worked extensively to provide training sessions, community gatherings and ride-alongs with players and local police departments, as well as team-facilitated volunteer programs that involve police officers and underserved youth," the spokesperson added. "We are committed to working with players, clubs and partners to make positive change in our communities."

Kaepernick, who founded his own social justice organization, has spoken out in support of activists and started a legal defense fund to provide legal representation to those protesting in Minneapolis.

President Donald Trump, who has been silent on Kaepernick and the NFL's handling of the protests for more than a year, clearly took a side in this divisive debate by repeatedly lambasting players who took a knee in a years-long feud with the NFL.

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