Berkeley High footballers kneel during the national anthem at a game in a still from Stand Up and Kneel, a Vice News Tonight film shot at the school.
Berkeley High footballers kneel during the national anthem at a home game in a still from Stand Up and Kneel, a VICE News Tonight film shot at the school.

49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick gained national attention when he began kneeling during the national anthem at games — a protest against the treatment of black people in the United States. Rolake Bamgbose, a producer at VICE News Tonight, spotted an opportunity for a good follow-up story. The result was Stand Up and Kneel, a 7-minute, fly-on-the-wall film shot on the field and in the locker room of the Berkeley High School football team. (Watch the film below.)

“We had been keeping an eye on how Colin Kaepernick-type protests were playing out across the country,” Bamgbose said last week on the phone from New York. ” We were noticing protests were taking wind at colleges, in middle schools, and even with little-league teams at the elementary level.”

One of Bamgbose’s goals is to find interesting stories with different perspectives that appeal to young people. About a month ago she started making calls around the country to see if she could find a school team that was protesting.

What she found instead was a coach — Berkeley High’s head football coach CJ Johnson — who had just started talking with his team about whether, and how, they should make their voices heard. Johnson told Bamgbose that a couple of his team captains had come to him saying they wanted to protest. A few raised their fists at a game. Johnson suggested talking as a team to decide collectively on an approach.

Bamgbose’s interest was piqued. She asked Johnson if he would hold off formal talks with the team until VICE was able to get a crew onto the Berkeley High campus. Then she and VICE producer and correspondent Jay Kaspian Kang got on an airplane to the West Coast.

In the film, Kang interviews some of the players about the issues that have triggered protests around the country, including racism. Team captain and senior Daraja McDonald says that, despite Berkeley’s reputation for being a liberal, tolerant city, he sees both segregation and racism at Berkeley High. Senior Brandon Bailey, another team captain, refers to the time a noose was found hanging on a tree on campus. The film also mentions the racist threats that were found on a computer in the school library in November last year that prompted a mass walkout and protest.

Discussion in the locker room about the motivation for protest prompts players to talk from the heart. One says: “We’re kneeling down to stand up for black oppression and police brutality, and with us locking arms it shows that we’re doing it as a team and we’re united in what we’re doing.” Another says: “We, Berkeley High, we don’t care about the scrutiny we’re gonna get, we don’t care what other people say about us, we want to care about what we think the country should represent.” And a third says: “I know the protest isn’t going to end police brutality. I know it isn’t going to stop a black man from being shot or followed or beaten, but I feel like it will bring a lot more awareness to it.”

“I thought it was amazing,” said Bamgbose, whose work often touches on social-justice and civil-rights issues. “The players were really honest with their opinions. We did our best to be respectful and it was like we weren’t there. They were having normal conversations.”

Bamgbose added that it is often hard working with schools because of the red tape filmmakers have to clear. “But it’s rewarding. It’s important to remember that young people are talking about issues.”

The VICE News Tonight film was released on HBO, and then uploaded to YouTube on Nov. 4 where it has had more than 25,000 views so far.

In an email to the Berkeley High community sent out on Nov. 10, the day after election day, Berkeley Unified Superintendent Donald Evans talked about the importance of “thoughtful reflection” and “positive lessons of respect and inclusion” within BUSD. He cited the VICE film. “A recent segment on HBO … is a good example of the thoughtfulness we see in our students every day,” he wrote. “The team’s coach and athletic director asked them to consider their actions before protesting, ensured they had researched and understood the issues and had worked together to ensure everyone has a voice. These are questions that underpin our constitutional democracy, and are essential to the way in which we will move forward, together.”

Members of the Berkeley High football team reflect on collective protest action in a still from Stand up and Kneel, a short film made by VICE News Tonight

Do you like staying informed about Berkeley news? Learn about all the ways you can help support our work (most of them don’t cost a penny!).

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...