Texans receiver Kenny Stills talks activism, arrest and 'real change'

ByCameron Wolfe ESPN logo
Sunday, September 6, 2020

Since joining Colin Kaepernick in taking a knee to protest police brutality and social injustice in 2016, Houston Texans receiver Kenny Stills, 28, has remained one of the NFL's most active participants in the movement to create change for the many Black men and women affected by systemic racism.

In two separate interviews over the past week, ESPN's Cameron Wolfe spoke with Stills about the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a proposed action plan for NFL players, the impact of athletes speaking up and NFL owners' roles in creating change. Stills, who also played for the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints, detailed his experience being arrested while protesting the Breonna Taylor killing, a surprise apology from his former coach Adam Gase and how he balances being an athlete and activist.

Here are excerpts from the conversations between Wolfe and Stills, edited for clarity and brevity.

'We've got to do something'

You have spent much of the past few months fighting for justice for Breonna Taylor. What did it feel like to see another video of the police shooting a Black man, Jacob Blake?

I woke up, and it was the first thing I saw on my phone at 5 a.m. the next day after it happened. I was upset. I was crying all the way up to practice. You're trying to process that his kids are in there, wondering if he's still alive and then seeing the other side speaking about he shouldn't have been doing this or that. It's just a wave of emotion. I was debating if I want to go to work, if I can go to work, how to handle the situation. I felt defeated. ... In my personal situation, I had practice that day and I had a press conference that day and it was my first time speaking to the media. ... But I figure out a way to push through without shedding tears or blowing up on someone for their questions. I'm trying to do the best as an individual to be constructive, but every time it happens, it's heartbreaking.

What does the action plan for real change look like to you?

The plan is to connect with local activists in every city. Help amplify the work they're doing and work toward making a list of demands for real change. The politicians and government officials aren't getting the job done in most cases. We have to work with the people who specialize in this work. I've been sending messages to players individually, but I want this to spread through the league. I have a list of organizers for each city for guys to connect with and make real change. I hope guys will reach out if they need information about where to start in their communities. If we connect with activists, not one time -- it's not a one-time thing -- but throughout this season and emphasize the work they're doing, we can make real changes in our cities. Then we can potentially put together a list of national demands and asks that the whole league can support. I sent a message to [NFL executive vice president of football operations] Troy Vincent: 'If we don't do something huge, what do you think is going to happen during the season as the police continue to kill our people?'

We have to be weary of teams wanting to set us up with their sheriff or mayor. It's a photo-op and they can say we talked, but what is actually being done? From my perspective, I've sat down with a lot of different folks and we are still in the same place. We've twiddled our thumbs for way too long. This s--- is not going to happen overnight. We understand that. This is not a pass-or-fail type of thing, but we've got to do something. It's bigger than T-shirts, kneeling, holding hands and sitting out of practice, because that's not touching the owners' pockets.

It's important that we work with organizations outside of the NFL's network -- organizations that make people uncomfortable. That's where real change comes. This isn't about who gets the credit. It's about all of us coming together and doing what's best for our people. I'm not trying to be the leader of the movement. ... We're all in this together, but this is where I'm coming from.

'In a jail cell with 22 other men'

On July 14, Stills was a part of the Louisville 87 -- a group of 87 women and men who were arrested while peacefully protesting the lack of action for Taylor, who was killed on June 23 by Louisville police who served a no-knock warrant on her home. Stills and the protesters gathered at the home of Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron, a Black man who also spoke at the Republican National Convention in August. Stills and the 86 other protesters were each charged with one felony (intimidating a participant in a legal process) and two misdemeanors (second-degree disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing). All of those arrested spent the night in jail and felony charges were dropped later that week.

Can you take me through what that experience in Louisville during the protest and your arrest was like?

We were signing up to basically go and get arrested. We had a training session beforehand with Until Freedom [which helped organize the protest]. [Co-founder of Until Freedom and civil rights activist] Tamika Mallory and their crew really didn't tell us much because they advertised this on social media, and so you never know if there's people from the media on the inside or people working for their local law enforcement. We came into the meeting, they kinda told us, here's the number to the lawyer, once you get arrested you call this person, and we'll get you out. We've got all your names, all your information, we can't tell you where we're going, but this is a nonviolent protest and that's what you can expect. They fed us some food, and we got on some buses, and we were out.

And next thing you know, we were marching down the street ... then we turned, and that was the street that Cameron's house was on. They had helicopters following us the whole time, and then we were met by law enforcement and they told us they were gonna arrest us. At that point we were sitting in the middle of the street and the decision was made by leadership to go and sit on his lawn and get arrested there. ... We had our white allies surround the perimeter of all of us sitting down so that they couldn't rush us and hurt us. And, yeah, they arrested us one by one, put us in, zip-tied us with our hands behind our back and put us in the paddy wagons.

... I'm not the biggest person in the world, but my shoulders aren't made for me to have my hands behind my back and to be crunched into like a little paddy wagon, because the way they set it up, it's obviously supposed to be uncomfortable. ... We all have our masks on, there's no AC, it's really tight, and so I basically told the officer, hey, I'm gonna pass out if you don't move me closer toward the door. So they were cool enough to let me move my spot closer to the door.

And it took about, I think it took about 5 or 6 [hours], we weren't processed until 11, 11:30 p.m. We were sitting underneath the jail in handcuffs, locked to like a long group of other handcuffs, chained. We spent about 17 hours inside the jail.

We had 22 men, the rest were women, we had white women that outnumbered our Black men and all the women as a whole outnumbered us. Double almost. Tripled us. Yeah, that experience, I will never, I'm not gonna encourage other people to get arrested, but I think obviously getting in good trouble is a totally different thing. But also, having the experience of getting arrested, put in the cop car, going through being processed and put in jail. Eating a meal there, seeing the attitude of law enforcement on the inside. There, we're locked up in handcuffs and officers are walking around with shotguns and trying to do things to like stare us down and intimidate us, and we're like, bro, we got arrested peacefully. None of us had weapons, we were sitting on the lawn and you guys are walking around with shotguns, trying to instigate. Like just give us some water, let us go to the bathroom, you know what I mean.

...It was a beautiful experience. I think the most free or vulnerable I've felt is being in a jail cell with 22 other men. Obviously with COVID, they didn't have us socially distanced or anything, but it was 22 men in the cell and we end up going around in a circle and introducing ourselves and how we got involved in the movement, what we do and just like a little background about us. The relationships that we built in there, the different types of people, backgrounds, religions, sexual orientations, everything we had; it was what you would think of America.

And one of the more powerful conversations we had was talking about reparations and defunding the police and just us as men going back to our communities and recruiting five or ten or a hundred other guys, and what that would look like if we all brought back five guys from our community and understanding we are all leaders in our own way. ... The most normal I've felt probably in a long time, but especially during COVID, was in a cell with 22 other men.

I see you're wearinga Breonna Taylor shirt on this Zoom call. What effect has her story had on you?

It's extremely alarming to me as a half Black, half Mexican man to see how her story was swept under the rug for a long time. The quote of Malcom X talking about the Black woman being the most unprotected person in our country or on the planet is like, it's alarming and it's true. ... The police are a bad investment, and as a capitalist society, we should understand good investments and bad investments, and if you're investing [a lot of capital] into something where they're not protecting and serving our people, then we've gotta figure out a way to do it. We're smart enough to do it. It's not a red thing or a blue thing, it's not about politics at all. It's about human beings and people.

'We need to be proactive'

Stills participated in the initial conversations between players, the NFL and its owners about social justice initiatives, but he was a part of a small group that broke from the Players Coalition right before it agreed to accept the league's offer to donate $89 million to causes important to African-American communities. Stills continued his protest of kneeling during the anthem while seeking change without the league's help.

We've seen a new wave of player activism -- NBA and WNBA teams going on strike ahead of games, NFL teams skipping practices and entire teams kneeling during the national anthem. How have you seen this movement evolve?

I thought that was huge; the WNBA has been leading the charge on all of this from the very beginning. I want to show love to them. It took the NBA guys in the playoffs to not play a game for people to really pay attention. I think that encourages and emboldens the rest of the leagues. It's a domino effect. That was inspiring. It lifted my spirits. It really helped boost my confidence in what we can do as athletes and understand our power. It showed our league what we can do and how strong we are if we decide to use our power and our platform. I understand guys wanting to take a break from practice to make sure we are OK mentally and emotionally. Watching those videos are traumatizing. Sometimes it's difficult to get out of bed or do anything after you see those videos. I have a ton of respect for the teams that decided to cancel practice, get together as a team and make a statement and try to figure out what are the best steps moving forward.

Do you feel like boycotting or striking from NFL games is an option for you?

One hundred percent. It's something that is thought about and talked about. Like you saw in the message I sent to Troy Vincent, I let him know -- what do you think is going to happen if the league doesn't take a firm stance and do something? What do you think is going to happen if police officers continue to brutalize our communities? What do you think is going to happen when we see another video of an unarmed Black person being killed on our phones during the season? Guys are going to continue to be more and more encouraged and emboldened to do action. Especially with our election coming up, it's a rocky, roller-coaster time in our country. [The NFL and NFLPA announced Thursday in a joint statement that all NFL facilities will be closed on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3]. Our league has to do something or our players are going to take a firm stance. ... We have to understand what are the next steps and realize it's not going to be comfortable. It's not going to come from politicians. It's going to come from our local activists and organizers.

What's your view on how the symbol of kneeling has evolved from when Kaepernick started to do it to now, when it seems to be more of a trend?

It's frustrating now because we're in that same position. It's like, all right guys, we're gonna take a knee, and it's appreciated; it's a little late, but also it's like, how in the grand scheme has that [changed] anything? I ask myself that same question all the time. ... There are smaller groups of people that are listening but also groups of people that were doing everything they could to make sure that story wasn't getting out.

I feel like I've done everything in my power to try to bring people together, be reasonable, be calm when I speak, work with the other side, whatever it is that people are trying to ask me to do, I was trying to do. It's interesting now to have this thing, to have this movement be turned up again and people want to get involved and take a knee, and we'll see if this gesture leads to any action.

As for people taking a knee this year and what that means, I'm kind of in the middle about it because I feel like everyone around the world knows we have an issue. Initially, taking a knee was to bring attention to these issues we have in our country. ... Now people are getting involved that might not be as dedicated or might be doing it now because it's a lot easier to. But I try to ... understand what this movement is about and who it's for, and so yeah, I'm pretty sure I'll be out there taking a knee this season.

If you were able to speak to the NFL and make your own demands of how you would want to see it more active in the movement, what would you say?

It has to do with economic equality and economic power. We have no Black ownership, we have very few Black coaches, and that's where the issue lies. Black men have helped every sports league become what they are -- NCAA, MLB, NFL -- these leagues are built off our back and we deserve to have ownership in these leagues. Figuring out ways to get more Black ownership, more Black people at the top. And it's not just Black people, it's Black people who are for the people. Like this Washington Football Team, I don't [know] the man who was hired to be president, but there still is no [Black] ownership. And until we have ownership as people, then we're not gonna have much.

I look at it like our society loves Black culture. We love Black athletes, we love entertainment, Black entertainment. We love Black art, music, whatever. Imagine if the league had Black leadership [among its 32 owners] ... But the league talks about -- being a coach, adapting and adjusting throughout the game, that's all we're doing. Seeing what the other team is doing, adapt, adjust, adapt, adjust. And we as a country have not adapted or adjusted to our people. And we as a league have not adapted and adjusted. We are a reactionary league. ... We need to be proactive. ... When we can start to do that and we have Black people in places of power and leadership, then we can show and lead the way in how to be proactive in all issues.

What role do current sports owners need to play in creating change going forward?

Ownership -- these men and women at the top -- know how to navigate the system to help the team, the stadium or the things that help themselves. Their responsibility is to figure out how to use their power and resources to help their employees and the people they say they care about, the people that they make money off. ...The other side has to look in the mirror and say, 'How can I fix this?' What can I do? Asking us [as players] is just adding more to our plate and there is no self-reflection in that.

There's a new wave of playerswho did the racial inequality video with Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas leading them. What did you think of it and how the league responded?

That is a pretty strong move made by the guys by making some demands. I think at all times you can go a little bit stronger and ask for more, and start to realize, too, that you know, all the blame and pressure doesn't go to [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell. I think he is [for] all of the owners, that's their scapegoat, so all the pressure and all the negative publicity goes to Roger. It would have been a lot more impactful to see the owners come out and say something. It would've been really impactful for [Miami Dolphins owner] Stephen Ross to reach out and apologize, general managers to reach out and apologize.

I was really, really, like, impacted by [New York Jets and former Dolphins coach Adam] Gase -- he reached out to me and was just like, 'Hey I apologize for never having a conversation with you around this topic. I totally didn't understand, I didn't get it, and it's something I regret.' Him doing that out of the blue really showed who he is as a man and our relationship and the character he has and how he's grown. How he's able to sit down and reflect and really think about his actions and his decisions. I think just as a man, regardless of the NFL or being a head coach or whatever, that's something I admire and appreciate and love about him.

How have you balanced being an activist and an athlete?

It's tough because my personality is very much so, like, all-in. ... It's a battle, and luckily I've been playing this game long enough, and I'm a technician as far as it comes to being a receiver and I take care of my body and I do all these things, so it makes it easier for me to go back to playing ball when I've stepped away from a little while. It's about finding balance.

I know you were considering opting out of this NFL season. Why did you choose to play?

Understanding and knowing that I'm in a contract and this contract is something that I agreed to do, and just also being principled to the fact that, hey, this is something you signed up to do, and you know you should do your best to fulfill the thing you said you were going to do. ... And just to continue to try to do my best to have an impact on the league because I know who the league's audience is ... it's middle-class white America, right? And so there's no better place for me to be than inside the NFL to try to combat the influence on our ownership and on our league. I can impact the audience in the grand scheme of things. That's all we're trying to do is get people to come together and make a better country for all of us.

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