‘Do it together’: Q&A with Cal football defensive end Zeandae Johnson on activism

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Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Shailin Singh, football beat reporter for The Daily Californian, and Zeandae Johnson, a redshirt senior for the Cal football team. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Shailin Singh: You and your teammates have been very active on social media and in the streets throughout the Black Lives Matter movement. What are your thoughts about what you, specifically, are protesting for, and also what you think other people are protesting for?

Zeandae Johnson: The first thing we’re protesting is police brutality. A lot of this is riding the wave with the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders. Not just police brutality, but also the judgments following that and, to be specific, qualified immunity. We’re protesting that. That’s something that I want to pinpoint and highlight: to make them more accountable. I don’t think anybody should be able to be exempt for any reason. Everybody should be held to the same standard, including police officers. We are also protesting the same thing that (Colin) Kaepernick was protesting: injustice for Black and Brown people in America. We’re protesting the fact that it hasn’t changed, which is what really made us come out en masse. The best way I was able to help was not just walking in the protest, but me and my teammates set up and we passed out water and hand sanitizer, trying to make sure everybody was still pushing fluids and staying hydrated. So, if they do pass signs or something like that, just sanitize them before they pass them, just to try to keep things as clean as possible during the pandemic.


SS: Are there any specific changes you would like to see at any level, whether nationally or locally?

ZJ: I want to see a change in the police force. I want to see more requirements for being a police officer. I want to do more background checks, more screenings — making it harder to be a police officer. Also, some of the funds we have should go to more educational stuff. If we have more educated people or easier access to better education in the K-12 system, it would make this situation a lot easier to manage and to work through. Some of their funding should be siphoned off and go straight to education. I also think that they should have a longer period in boot camp or training to become a police officer — there should be a deeper vetting program and the end of qualified immunity.


SS: What are some things, in terms of inequality or racial injustice, that you would like to be changed in football specifically?

ZJ: I just want to see more inclusivity on the coaching staffs. It’s ridiculous in the NFL and a little bit of college football that there are not as many coaches that are Black and Brown, but the majority of the players are Black and Brown. I don’t understand where the disconnect comes from. The majority of the people that are in the system are Black athletes. How did the athletes not transition to being coaches? I’d like more inclusivity in that, especially in the NFL at the top ranks. I think it’ll go top-down, and we get more Black head coaches, Black coordinators, Black everywhere. We’d be able to make that trend to the NFL, make that trend go fall all the way down the chain.


SS: For people who aren’t Black and don’t face this type of underrepresentation or lack of opportunity, what is something that we lack in our perspective or something that we can be more conscious of?

ZJ: I would say, be conscious of the fact that you do have that privilege. You have to acknowledge that you have that privilege, and bringing it forth will help rectify the privileges that we do not have. With your privilege, you can help us ascend and balance the scales. You have to make sure that, if you’re not one of us, you have to be an ally. You have to be proactive with us. You have to acknowledge racism and you have to acknowledge that it exists. You have to acknowledge that we are in this together and we need to move forward together because you guys have the privilege, and with your privilege, you can do so much to help change the system. We can do a lot by ourselves, but it’ll be a lot easier to do it together.


SS: Back to the sports side of it, what has it been like seeing so many athletes all around the world speak up against racism and police brutality, and how do you think athletes can continue using their platforms to improve society?

ZJ: I thought it was about time. A lot of times, you don’t want to get labeled; you don’t want to speak out and hurt yourself like Kaepernick did. Some people feared that. I’m glad that we can now use our platform, and it doesn’t just work for those that look up to us, but it works for those who are our peers. So by me speaking out with some of our teammates, it makes other people comfortable to speak out because you’re not the only one speaking. It’s amazing to see that we are now having less anxiety around speaking out. They can’t ignore us because it’s not just one person or 10 people. It’s the entire spectrum all across the board in college football, so now they have to address it. I’m glad we finally got to utilize our platform without being afraid.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].