Keanu Hill knelt on the turf during the national anthem before Tulsa’s football game at Ohio State on Sept. 10, 2016. That’s all we knew then and all we know now, and we should feel awful about that as we consider George Floyd’s death and black America’s despair and rage.
Hill, then a 22-year-old TU cornerback, was trying to tell us something, same as other football players following Colin Kaepernick’s lead by dropping to a knee to protest police brutality against Americans of color and systemic racism that fosters such despicable behavior.
Betty Shelby shot and killed Terence Crutcher in Tulsa six days after Hill took a knee. Six days.
Hill was trying to say something, but we didn’t listen then. I didn’t listen to him. That was my privileged, convenient mistake.
A first step toward correcting that, in the aftermath of what happened to Floyd and what is happening in cities across our country in response, is to listen now.
“That was the only time in my Tulsa career that I was on the field for the national anthem,” Hill says by phone from Los Angeles, where he is pursuing a career as a firefighter. “This was the same year that Kaepernick was doing his silent protest. I didn’t even think about it. It was never a planned notion. It was never ‘I’m about to take a knee during the national anthem.’
“We were doing our team prayer and once everybody was done praying, they stood up. I was continuing to pray and I heard the national anthem start. That’s when I decided. It was very instinctual of me to stay on my knee.”
Why was it instinctual?
“I come from L.A.,” Hill says. “I’ve experienced police brutality. I’ve watched it. I’ve been through it. I’ve been pulled out of cars for no reason on my block. I’ve been surrounded by over 10 cops with over eight cop cars just because I’m sitting outside a car with four of my friends. We were simply sitting there. They got a call saying there were four black males who looked sketchy, so they pulled us out of our car and threw us on the ground. That’s pretty normal where I come from.”
There is more to Hill’s perspective. His mother, who raised him in a single-parent household, is Samoan. His aunt has Caucasian and Hispanic ethnicity.
“So I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum,” Hill says. “I was pretty aware of how white and black people lived. That was a blessing.”
It opened his mind wider to the world, its prejudices included. If his action at Ohio State was instinctual, so was his reaction to the discord it caused.
He says TU staff worried he had painted the program in a controversial light, and that there might be financial repercussions if ticket buyers made good on threats to pull their support as a result of the protest.
He remembers the statement TU issued in response, reading in part: “A university setting is a place of free expression and open discussion of differing perspectives and opinions. However, the actions of one do not speak for an entire group and — in this instance — not for University of Tulsa athletics.”
He says his mom worried he had jeopardized his safety in Tulsa and his future in football by taking a knee.
“I replied initially with, ‘This is my life. This is bigger than me. This is bigger than my future. This is bigger than anything that you’re speaking on right now,’ ” Hill says. “‘Everything that Kaepernick is standing up for, I lived that. I’ve seen all my friends live it. This isn’t something that we can just turn off. I understand your concern, but at the same time this is who I am. I’m passionate about what’s going on. There is definitely some injustices in America. It’s always been that way and in my opinion will always be that way.
“‘If I can use my platform to speak up, that’s definitely what I’m going to do.’”
Hill looks back on his use of his platform with some positive feelings. He remembers a white teammate approaching after the fact and saying something to the effect of “Bro, I wish you would have told me. I would have taken a knee with you.”
There were enlightening conversations with other teammates and some professors. There was assistant coach Dan Bitson’s effort to get Hill and other African-American TU players in front of kids in north Tulsa elementary schools. Hill says he met Crutcher’s nephew at Hawthorne that way.
There was the night Hill joined a group for a bite at a Tulsa Buffalo Wild Wings.
“A waiter came by and gave me a note,” Hill recalls. “It said, ‘Thank you for being the hero that you are. We need more people like you in this community. Continue to be you. Peace and blessings.’”
Mostly, though, there is regret four years later. Because here we are again.
“What we did wasn’t enough. It obviously didn’t change anything,” Hill says. “I guess it made it more open for people to talk about. But what is talking without action? As far as George Floyd, my condolences go out to his family and to every other family who has lost someone to police brutality. But to this point, I’m numb to it.”
He sounds distraught more than anything. It’s heartbreaking.
Hill wants badly for America to permanently latch on to the issues in play here, and not make them a cause du jour. He has seen where that hasn’t occurred, though.
“Since we took a knee four years ago, what has really happened since then?” he says. “Significant people and role models and people we look up to, when we see them talk about it, we see the NBA come out with their ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts (in 2014 to signify Eric Garner’s death after police put the African-American in a chokehold). OK, that came and went. Hashtag Black Lives Matter came and went. Martin Luther King Jr. came and went. Malcolm X came and went. Muhammad Ali came and went. It’s going to continue to come and go sadly.”
Hill, for his part in the narrative, wouldn’t mind a do-over. He was given a platform. He did use it in a prominent setting. He’s just upset he didn’t see it all the way through.
There was a team meeting where he explained why he took a knee.
“I don’t think I apologized. I might have,” Hill says. “Even now when I think about it, it’s pretty sickening.”
He believes he should have pushed harder. He wishes he would have challenged his coaches stronger, although he does recall referring head coach Philip Montgomery to a book by noted black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“‘Between the World and Me,’” Hill says. “I was really big into reading.”
As such, Hill educated himself on Tulsa’s toxic racial history, the city’s Race Massacre. He couldn’t believe that subject wasn’t taught in Tulsa schools.
Hill had so much trouble on his mind. He says he tried to compartmentalize that trouble for the sake of his surging team — TU finished 10-3 in 2016.
Now there is so much more trouble. It’s hard to know exactly what to think or do about it.
My inclination is to call Hill. He tells me he appreciates my effort.
He also sends a bull’s eye into white America’s sympathetic but uninformed heart.
“I feel like because you guys don’t live and experience it, it’s going to just come and go,” he says. “Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd ...”
Terence Crutcher ... not one week after Hill took a knee.
“When I think about four years ago, I think, ‘Damn, I didn’t do enough. I did not do enough,’” Hill says. “I was thinking about my college career. I was thinking about the team. I was thinking about the possibility of my being in the NFL. There were numerous things that made me not full-fledged go for a change.”
He went pretty far. A 22-year-old college football player taking a knee in front of 104,410 fans? That shows more conviction than we ever had at that age, and likely most of us ever will have.
In retrospect, the mistake was ours, not his. We didn’t receive the message.
We damn well better receive it now. I’m listening. It took an inexcusably long time, but I’m here.
Hill is right. What is talking without action, he said. What is listening without it?
Well, at least we can start here. We can give Hill the attention he deserved four years ago.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!