Saul Eugene, 23, knew he was walking into hostile territory when he attended Thursday night's Trump rally in Minneapolis wearing a Colin Kaepernick jersey. But he never expected to be ejected from the venue.
Trump has very publicly disparaged Kaepernick and other NFL players who've knelt during the National Anthem in protest of police violence and racial injustice. Eugene is a self-described "political operative" who says he's worked for a variety of Democratic politicians in Minnesota. Wearing a Kaepernick jersey, he tells TIME, "was an easy way to send a message, without having to use too many words."
What, exactly, is that message? "I think it's strength," says Eugene in the first interview he's given about the ejection, which was captured on camera and began to go viral on Friday. Kaepernick has not played in the NFL since the 2016 season, when he began his protest. Earlier on Thursday, Kaepernick's representatives had released a statement noting that he has been "working out 5 days a week, for 3 years, in preparation to play again," and lamenting that not a single team has even brought him in for a workout.
"[Kaepernick] essentially gave up his whole career to fight for the things he believed in," says Eugene. Of Trump, he continued, "we're talking about a candidate who thrives off of white males who feel that their privilege is being threatened by minorities, women, all of that stuff. A black man willing to use his platform to step up and speak out on a lot of the atrocities that are committed across this country on a regular basis, it scares them. It's everything they fear. They're losing their control and their upper hand."
"I can't walk around and talk to every Trump supporter and have them feel what I'm saying," says Eugene. "But there is power in imagery and power in symbols. Kaepernick has become one of those symbols."
According to Eugene, he wore a jacket over his jersey until arriving at his seat. During one of the speeches at the rally before the President talked, Eugene said he laughed at a point he disagreed with. "I wasn't laughing any louder than people were cheering," he says. "Sure, it was audible. But it wasn't an act of aggression in any way."
Still, Eugene says a man sitting in the row in front of him turned around to confront him and, he claims, threatened to hit him. Eugene says he winked at the man in response, and said "I dare you." The man called over a security guard who, at first, declined to kick Eugene out. Then Eugene laughed a few more times; he says the man turned around again, called him names and then made a phone call. Security soon came down again, this time telling Eugene he was "uninvited" from the event.
As he walked out of the arena, Eugene blew kisses. The crowd became to heckle him: someone said "f-k Kaepernick," according to Eugene, and he said he also heard someone yell the N-word. (Eugene is white.) He says the police who escorted him out were polite and professional, adding that they said they were just following orders.
A Minneapolis Police Department official told TIME that Target Center security had ordered Eugene's removal; the Target Center did not return a request for comment. TIME reached out to both the White House and the Trump 2020 campaign for comment: the White House referred TIME to the campaign, which did not return the request. Through Twitter, TIME reached out to the man who allegedly confronted Eugene and summoned security. He has yet to provide a comment.
Eugene knows some people will believe he attended for the sole rally of getting kicked out and receiving attention - but he says that wasn't the case. "They can say what they want," he says. "I was prepared to be kicked out if that's what it led to. I was prepared to be very un-liked and show my stance. The thing is, it's unwavering. It you're on the right side of history, you're on the right side of history."