Pastors and community activists who knelt on one knee and raised their right fists outside Bank of America Stadium Thursday night said they were protesting racial injustice, not disrespecting the flag, the national anthem or America.
“I sacrificed and fought for my country,” said Kenneth Raley, a 51-year-old Army veteran who was among about 100 people kneeling at Mint Street and Stonewall Street 10 minutes before the national anthem played inside the stadium for the Panthers-Eagles game. “And I understand as a soldier you fight for Old Glory, but Old Glory has nothing to do with why we’re out here.”
The protest, which organizers said drew participants from across the Carolinas, was intended to highlight ongoing police brutality and social and racial injustice, mirroring what former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick did while the national anthem was played before a 2016 NFL game.
Players kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games this year have drawn the ire of President Donald Trump and set off a coast-to-coast debate on respecting the flag vs. the players’ right to comment on public issues.
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Those who gathered to kneel processed to the corner holding signs that said “We Kneel for Our Fallen,” “United for Justice,” “Kneel in Protest!!!” and “Stop Killing Us!”
Moments before everyone knelt, Bishop Kevin Long of Temple Church International-Charlotte told them “the kneel-in will serve as a platform for the citizens of Charlotte and the surrounding areas to let America know that we are not compelled to take a stand for a country that does not stand for us.”
The new Pastors and Community Leaders Coalition organized the “kneel-in,” inspired by the recent police shooting of Ruben Galindo in north Charlotte. Hector Vaca, a Latino community leader and Charlotte director of the nonprofit Action NC, joined the gathering of primarily African-American men and women outside the stadium.
Most fans walking to the stadium did not appear to even see the group, although a few stopped by to watch for a few moments and express their disagreement to reporters, including three Eagles fans from Philadelphia.
“To kneel against our country is unbelievable,” 34-year-old Eagles fan Don Zajac said.
While everyone has the freedom to protest, “what are they doing after the fact?” 38-year-old Eagles fan Ed Pearlstein asked. “Go to our VA and see what the soldiers are doing,” he suggested.
Shawn Richardson, who identified himself as a minister from Charlotte, at one point shouted at Darren Mims, a 50-year-old white Marine veteran from Gastonia who said he disagreed with the protesters. In the end, they shook hands, and another African-American minister, the Rev. Raymond Johnson of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Marion, S.C., hugged Mims.
“We’re not protesting the flag,” Johnson told the Observer moments earlier. “It’s about the wrongdoing that’s gone on under the flag,” adding that President Donald Trump is using the flag argument “to try to stop us, to silence us.”
Long organized and led Thursday’s gathering. He urged the gathering to pay no attention to Richardson arguing loudly nearby with Mims.
“I want to stress: This is a peaceful protest,” Long said through a megaphone to those gathered before he led them in prayer to start the kneel-in.
A few Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers stood by, telling any of the protesters who started standing in the street to get back onto the sidewalk.
The Pastors and Community Leaders Coalition said the kneel-in aimed to shed light on “police brutality, lack of accountability for officers who’ve killed innocent and/or unarmed citizens, and the high rates of unemployment for minorities.”
“This is a call for accountability,” the coalition said. “Kneeling is merely the method we have chosen, it is not the message in its entirety. The message is that there is a deep and very wide gulf between the Black and Brown communities and others in this country, and we are not compelled to stand that.”
Other kneel-in protests are scheduled in Baltimore and other cities in coming days, according to the coalition.
The last demonstrations outside the stadium followed the September 2016 shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, an African-American shot outside his home in north Charlotte. Police say Scott also refused to put down a gun.