Anthony Harris wrestled with the consequences of what he wanted to do versus the potential outcome.
The Minnesota Vikings safety was on his way to the grocery store one evening in early June when he noticed a police car driving through his neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, his offseason home. He thought about pulling over and putting on his flashers to get the officer’s attention.
Harris wanted to talk. Human to human — Black man to white police officer — about the events taking place across the nation. The unrest and activism began after George Floyd was killed while in custody of the Minneapolis Police Department on May 25.
Harris’ intentions came from a place of hurt, wanting to bring forth healing. He saw an opportunity to use his voice and platform as a prominent Black athlete to create change and understanding.
After weighing the risks, Harris decided it was worth it.
“It crossed my mind that I could be potentially shot or viewed as a threat just for what I was trying to do,” said Harris, who talked to the officer for 25 minutes, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I made sure I proceeded with extra caution so I didn’t surprise them or, with everything going on in the world, that I tried to make them feel comfortable. It kind of just kept things in perspective of, no matter where you go or no matter what you’re really doing as an African American man, that’s something that you can’t shake.”
Harris and his Vikings teammates watched the video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for seven minutes and 48 seconds. It happened in the community where so many Vikings had donated their time and resources.
In 2018, the Vikings launched a social justice committee in which players can discuss racial matters openly and support organizations battling systemic issues in the Twin Cities. According to a survey by ESPN’s NFL Nation, Minnesota is one of 17 teams with a social justice committee. Three other franchises have similar programs in the works.
Now, the Vikings are at the epicenter of a social justice movement that has gone international. The team’s presence in the Twin Cities community should help give them a platform to foster a dialogue about racism and remove barriers that hinder the vulnerable and underserved.
“These issues are very real,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “We need to educate ourselves as much as we can, but we have to do it together. We must continue to combine forces.”
In the days after Floyd’s death, Vikings players, coaches, front-office personnel and ownership held a series of meetings and expressed anger, sadness and pain. Harris and Kendricks released videos on the team’s website in which they wrestled with their grief and expressed a desire to help while struggling to determine the best course of action.
“More minds are greater than just one, and that’s the attitude we’re taking, and we’re all putting our heads together and trying to really create change.”
When Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson came up with the idea of a teamwide social justice committee, they received immediate support from ownership.
The Wilf family, which owns the Vikings, donated $250,000 to the committee in 2018 and again in 2019. That money was allocated to scholarships and school supplies for low-income students, legal aid, youth services and programs that aim to improve the relations between law enforcement and the community.
In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Vikings ownership announced a $5 million donation to social justice causes across the nation. The social justice committee also created an endowed George Floyd Legacy Scholarship to benefit Black high school seniors in Minneapolis-St. Paul who are pursuing post-secondary education.
Chief operating officer Andrew Miller called the Vikings’ opportunity to make an impact “both a privilege and an obligation.” Players on the committee, including Harris, Kendricks and running backs Ameer Abdullah and Alexander Mattison, are ready to lead the charge.
It comes after another African American was killed by police. This time, however, the circumstances feel different.
“Through time, the Black community has been telling the world that this has been going on,” Patterson said. “And a lot of people didn’t want to believe that it was going on, that the person had to do something wrong to either get choked to death, or shot, or whatever.
“But this is the reason why this one’s different: Because the whole world got to see life leave that man’s body. … Not only did they get to see him lose his life — they got to see it from start to finish.”
Almost 30 years ago, Patterson learned progress can be made when you foster communication and understanding. Like many of his African American players at Washington State, where he coached from 1992-93, Patterson often was followed home by police or stopped without reason.
He went to then-head coach Mike Price and asked to be a liaison between the team and police department with the goal of bridging a gap. Patterson met with the police chief regularly. He arranged for players to take part in ride-along programs with officers and held joint softball games and barbecues. Building trust was crucial.
“One of the things that I ended up finding out was the police thought that all of the players we were bringing in from California were Southern California gangbangers,” Patterson said, noting the racial tensions at the time after Rodney King’s assault by the Los Angeles police.
“They were already on alert because they heard all the stories about what was going on in L.A. and the gangbangers and how violent they were. That’s how they viewed our players, and because of us being able to spend time around them and us around them, it changed, and they started to treat our guys differently. Our guys started to treat them differently.”
He shared that experience during the Vikings’ social justice committee’s first meeting in 2018, and players saw an opportunity to make a similar impact. That winter, members of the social justice committee teamed with police in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to read books to children. They did it again in 2019.
It was the Vikings’ way of building a bridge between children who were brought up fearful of the police and those who were tasked with serving communities hesitant to trust them. It’s an issue the committee continues to discuss as players search for ways to foster change.
“Maybe there is a program where you can have a week of school dedicated to teaching these kids and hearing opinions about how [they] feel about officers,” Mattison said. “What is your perception of a police officer and why? And then a police officer comes in and explains and dives deeper into what exactly their job entails.
“We’ve been talking possibly about having a situation where we can get that uncomfortable dialogue going with a couple police officers so other people can learn from it. Maybe a roundtable of us discussing these issues, our fears, and you giving me your perspective and I give you my perspective.”
Those conversations are already taking place. Before Floyd’s death, the Vikings’ social justice committee had established a relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, including Chief Medaria Arradondo.
On June 6, 10 players, including Kendricks and Barr, met with Arradondo and three officers to discuss how the department can improve its interactions with the African American community.
Arradondo, who declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story, gave the players his perspective on the Floyd killing and the four ex-MPD officers involved. Arradondo expressed his feelings about what happened and the challenges his department faces with the police union, which has come under fire for its role in helping officers who face disciplinary action to return to the force. (Chauvin had 18 formal complaints on his record; ex-officer Tou Thao had six).
Arradondo talked about taking steps to create change for the good of the department and community. Then, he opened up the floor to Vikings players for an honest conversation about how police could do better.
Officer Charles Adams III was at that meeting. He is a police officer and the head football coach at his alma mater, Minneapolis North High School, which produced Tampa Bay Bucs receiver Tyler Johnson. The Polars have a 77-8 record under Adams over seven seasons.
Adams, 39, relayed the challenges he faces as a Black cop in the current climate.
“I honestly believe I’m caught in the middle,” Adams told ESPN. “For one, being a Black male and seeing the divide of the racial injustice and seeing how things are and how Black people are treated. But then again, I wear blue. It’s hard to have people understand that I wear blue but I’m Black. So all I try to do is let each and every one of the kids I mentor and I coach, let them know where my heart’s at.
“And it’s tough for them because now they worry about me. They know the relationships we have and they know what I’ve established in this community, and it’s hard for them to see me be associated with the negativity that there is right now with law enforcement.”
He said he believes the root of the department’s problem is “cultural differences” and a lack of education on how to treat people in the Black community.
“It’s hard to have people understand that I wear blue but I’m Black. So all I try to do is let each and every one of the kids I mentor and I coach, let them know where my heart’s at.”
Charles Adams III, Minneapolis police officer and high school football coach
And he asked for Vikings players to help.
“I just told them, straightforward, that we need your guys’ support as an organization in letting people know that you support us, but you identify the problems and are willing to continue to provide to the community to make change,” Adams said. “Publicly, people need to understand that this is an isolated incident that has put a huge black eye on our department, but this is not the characteristic of every single person in this department.
“It’s easy for organizations to be like ‘What do you guys need?’ And I never ask for anything monetary, because I know people can give me thousands of dollars and I can never see them again. I always tell people that it’s more important to have the time and showing your face. I think kids and people appreciate that more. The fellowship and the outreach in the community is a big thing.”
The Vikings’ social justice committee wants to be a part of the solution. They want to take action. The big question is how. For many, it starts with the most basic element when seeking change: starting a dialogue.
“How can I get individuals who aren’t affected [by issues of racism and other forms of systemic injustice] to be more aware, and somehow draw them into the issue and the topics that are going on?” Harris asked. “… How can I draw the person who is unaffected, who hasn’t experienced that? How can I draw them closer to this situation?
“Those are the people who I’m trying to reach, to create more of a dialogue and brainstorm, and really just draw behind the rally of acting in the best interests of the country and standing behind what’s right and what this country is supposed to represent and look like.”
Vikings players believe having “uncomfortable” conversations and creating an alliance to help expand the committee’s reach and impact is part of the solution. The Vikings have had a diverse group of players among its membership. Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who organized an essential goods drive in Minneapolis, and receiver Adam Thielen, both white players, have been members of the committee for the past two years.
Members of Minnesota’s social justice committee admit they don’t have the answers to some of the hardest questions — like whether they support defunding the police — and that opens the door for continued dialogue.
“Honestly, I don’t have all the answers,” Kendricks said. “I wish I could sit here and tell you I did. We obviously had communication with [Minneapolis police]. I know the [police] union is incredibly strong. I also know there needs to be systematic reform, especially in all areas of the government. For me to sit here and specifically say how and why, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I’m going to do my research a little bit more. Hopefully we’ll be in better dialogue.
“Something’s got to change.”