When Weston McKennie saw the video of George Floyd being killed, he knew he had to do something to pay respects to the man whose life was taken.
The FC Schalke 04 and USMNT midfielder wore a black armband during Saturday’s Bundesliga match against Werder Bremen with a written message: “Justice for George”.
“I felt like it was my responsibility and my duty, especially being American, and with the situation going on in America,” McKennie told me in a Zoom interview.
“And I felt like it was the best and biggest platform that I could use to spread awareness. Of course, maybe some people don’t agree with it, but that’s their opinion and for me, I felt like it was my duty and my responsibility to go out to show justice for George Floyd. This is a problem that’s been going on way too long.
“We’re the only (soccer) league that’s playing right now, all eyes are on the Bundesliga. So I felt like there’s no better way and no better time than now.”
It was McKennie’s teammates who alerted him to the video that showed Floyd, a black man, gasping for breath while a white police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes. The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He and three other officers have been fired.
“I wouldn’t even say that it was surprising, but it definitely was sickening. When a man of that age cries out for his mother, his dead mother, he’s essentially crying out ‘please help me’. He knows that he’s not going to make it out. It’s hard to watch,” McKennie said.
“Many of my teammates here saw it and are also disgusted. It’s something that touches you in a different way. It’s too much and it needs to be brought to attention. It needs to stop.
“There are too many social injustices and too many police brutality incidences where they say ‘it’s an accident’. An accident happens once or twice, but when it’s happened so many times like it has now, it can’t be overlooked anymore.”
McKennie, who is represented by former U.S. international Cory Gibbs, from Wasserman Media Group, was the first of four Bundesliga players who paid tribute to Floyd last weekend. Borussia Mönchengladbach forward Marcus Thuram took a knee to celebrate a goal, while Borussia Dortmund players Jadon Sancho and Achraf Hakimi revealed t-shirts with messages saying “Justice for George Floyd”. Sancho received a yellow card for removing his jersey.
McKennie, 21, didn’t speak to his club before wearing the armband and accepts he should have. During the match, the referee asked him to remove it.
“I was like, ‘I’m not taking it off’. There’s a rule in the league that you can’t make political statements. But I mean, if you really, really look at this as a political statement, then I don’t know what to tell you,” McKennie said.
“The league and everyone (in soccer) always preaches ‘say no to racism’. So I didn’t think that there would be a problem. If I have to take the consequences to express my opinion, to express my feelings, to stand up for what I believe in, then that’s something that I have to do.”
McKennie, who spent three years as a child living in Germany before returning to the United States, believes racism is a global problem. He has his own experiences, and those of family members, to support this.
It is not that long ago – “within the past couple of years” – that McKennie’s brother, who lives in the U.S., visited a barber shop after moving to a new area.
“He walked into the salon and the people looked at him and said ‘we don’t cut n***** hair here’,” McKennie said.
“When you hear that, you’re just like, ‘do people still have that mindset?’ I couldn’t believe it. You have to put yourself in his shoes. He’s just moved out to a new place, he doesn’t know the area, he has a family. And that gets said to him. I would fear for my life.”
McKennie said he has experienced racism since signing for Schalke from FC Dallas in 2016. During a cup match away at a lower league team, McKennie said a home fan made monkey gestures and noises at him and called him an “ape”.
“It’s something I hate to speak about. But if I don’t speak about it, if I don’t say what has happened to me and my family and I don’t bring it to attention, then we’ll never have the power to change anything.”
By speaking out, McKennie is aware he could face criticism from those who believe athletes should be seen and not heard – at least on social issues.
“My message for those people is that, yeah, we’re athletes, but we’re humans first,” he said.
“I know that I will continue to pay tribute to George Floyd in some way and not just him, but for the many senseless deaths that have happened in these situations.
“I believe that athletes have one of the biggest platforms to influence and if their followers don’t like what they believe in, they don’t have to follow them. If they don’t like what they believe in, they don’t have to support them. But I shouldn’t have to change what I believe in and what my opinion is, based on the people that follow me. It doesn’t work like that.”
McKennie is producing a video, which he expects to release on social media channels on Tuesday, featuring other athletes who believe “enough is enough”. The video includes images of police brutality.
“At one point I was looking at the video and thinking ‘is this too much?’ Is showing these videos too much?’ But that’s really what is happening,” McKennie said.
“I personally think if you can’t watch the videos, then that should say something alone. If you think they’re too violent, then that should be enough said.”
McKennie stresses that he does not believe “all police are bad police” in the same way “not all white people are racist” and “not all black people are criminals”.
But he does believe the fight against racism is one everyone can play a role in.
“It doesn’t matter the color of your skin. If you believe that this is wrong, if you want to see change, it’s something that you can join. Every voice matters, no matter how big or how small,” he said.
“Obviously it’s a global problem and it’s going to take the world to fix it.”