Taking a knee in Oakland, and other forms of resistance: 50 years of photos

San Francisco Chronicle photographer Santiago Mejia recorded the moment when Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell knelt in solidarity with former 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who “took a knee” during the national anthem to bring attention to social injustice in black communities in the U.S. The photo went viral amid a crass plea by President Trump for team owners to fire players engaging in such actions. (Photo courtesy of Santiago Mejia.)

When Santiago Mejia joined a panel last Friday at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism to discuss 50 years of social movement photography, little did he know that he would record a historic moment less than 24 hours later, as Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell became the Major League Baseball player to kneel in protest during playing of the national anthem.

In doing so on Saturday evening, Maxwell assumed a leading role amid an explosion of activity echoing Colin Kaepernick. Last year, when he was a  San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, Kaepernick knelt during the anthem to draw attention to racial injustice and police brutality in minority communities across the United States. Since then he has been let go by the 49ers and no other team has picked him up.

Maxwell’s kneeling was followed on Sunday by similar moves by National Football League players and owners, along with vocal support from other celebrity athletes, including Cleveland Cavaliers’ star forward LeBron James and National Basketball Association Hall of Famer Michael Jordan.

Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell (13) is embraced by Mark Canha (20) after Maxwell took a knee during the playing of the national anthem before a game between the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers at the Oakland Coliseum on Sept. 23 in Oakland. (San Francisco Chronicle photo by Santiago Mejia)

All of this took on added import in the wake of a series of hostile remarks by President Donald Trump that drew new questions about his racial sensitivity. On Friday night, Trump issued a tweet calling players who kneel during the national anthem a profanity and urging team owners to fire them. On Saturday he tweeted that an invitation to the NBA championships, the Golden State Warriors, was withdrawn after star Stephen Curry said he didn’t support a White House visit although the team would make a group decision.  Then on Sunday, Trump again tweeted a criticism of the NFL for supporting players’ freedom of expression.

The outcry hasn’t let up.

“By the third inning, the photo exploded on Twitter and gained thousands of retweets and opened the conversation back up on the growing number of athletes protesting racial and social inequality,” Mejia said today. “I was just doing my job, but I do feel proud I was able to capture the power of the moment in a photograph.”

Mejia, who grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, was the youngest participant in a panel discussion last Friday night at North Gate Hall dubbed “Resisters: 50 Years of Social Movement Photography in the Bay Area.”

The discussion was held in conjunction with an exhibit by the same name, curated by Ken Light, the Reva and David Logan Professor of Documentary Photography at UC Berkeley, and Melanie Light, a writer and cofounding executive director of Fotovision, a nonprofit supporting the international community of documentary photographers.

Mejia, a San Francisco Chronicle photographer, was joined by Mimi Plumb, Jeffrey Blankfort and Wesaam Al-Badry. Plumb is a former photography teacher and fine art photographer who documented California farmworkers’ struggle to unionize through the United Farm Workers 40 years ago. Blankfort is a legendary photographer of social protests from the 1960s through the ’80s, including the Free Speech Movement, the Black Panthers, the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and the Chicano rights movement in California. Al-Badry  learned photography in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp for Iraqis until his family was relocated to Nebraska in 1994. He now uses his camera to document contemporary social issues in the U.S., particularly the plight of those lost to gun violence.

Mejia said he got his start recording social movements while taking photos of Black Lives Matter demonstrations during some of their early days, while he was a student at San Francisco City College and most of the BLM actions weren’t being widely documented.  He said he often felt like an activist simply by being there and tweeting out or otherwise publishing images.

“Social movements within professional sports have a long history and they’re very powerful,” said Mejia. “More and more athletes are using their fame to spotlight racial and social injustice and disparity.
“Athletes with television cameras broadcasting them around the world sometimes have more reach than other protests,” he added.

His sense of energy, passion and commitment was clear on Friday night and again on Saturday night when he captured the Maxwell moment. What follows is Mejia’s own account of how that happened:

I had two photo assignments scheduled that day. One was for right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos’ news conference at Treasure Island and the other was to photograph Oakland A’s first baseman Matt Olson during the baseball game for a feature story.

The 2 p.m. news conference was canceled and I was reassigned to cover a protest at Cal against Free Speech Week. (Whistleblower) Chelsea Manning later appeared and I stayed a bit longer to cover that. I left soon after and started editing and sending my photos out.

A protest unfolded on the edges of UC Berkeley in conjunction with plans to bring conservative speakers to campus for a Free Speech Week. (San Francisco Chronicle photo by Santiago Mejia)

Traffic started to pile and I got to the Oakland Coliseum past 5 p.m when I got a call from my editor. He said there may be a chance a player was going to kneel during the anthem. The game was at 6 p.m. and the national anthem is a few minutes before. I picked up the pace or else I’d miss it.

I phoned our A’s beat reporter Susan Slusser who said it’d be very likely that Bruce Maxwell was going to take a knee. Maxwell had posted to Twitter and Instagram suggesting he was going to kneel and Slusser picked up on it.

As I was making my way through security and the crowd, I was watching the previous A’s national anthems on my phone to see how the players lined up, where they stood and where they faced. All these little details were crucial to what came next.

The photographers have access to a photo dugout near first and third base. I initially chose first base. On my way over there, my gut said to go to third.

I made it to the third base side with time to spare and began preparing everything. The cameras were set and my laptop was ready with prewritten captions.

The announcer called everyone to rise for the national anthem and I looked for Maxwell as the players made their way to the field. He kneeled in front of me.

I was taking photos from the side and quickly checked the photo and exposure.

I didn’t like the photo from the angle of the dugout. Maxwell is the first Major League Baseball player to take a knee. The photo didn’t show the weight of the moment.

Instincts took over and I quickly walked onto the field and in front of the athletes.

Immediately following the anthem, I grabbed my laptop and sent them to my editors and I put together a post on Twitter. I continued the Twitter report with another post of Maxwell being embraced by teammate Mark Canha and a couple more followups.