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The sports world is alternately inspired and enraged by five members of the NFL's St. Louis Rams. Their grand transgressive action was walking out onto their home field before the start of their Sunday, November 30th game against the Oakland Raiders, and raising their arms in the "hands up don't shoot" pose that has become the international symbol of protests against the police shooting of unarmed Ferguson, Missouri, resident Michael Brown. Debates have raged about whether the playing field is an "appropriate" place for politics or if any of the Rams would in some way be sanctioned by the league.
What the Rams players did is both admirable and worth defending. They brought protest to the field of play and imposed the rallying cry that black lives matter onto a space reserved for escape. By doing so, they incurred the wrath of the St. Louis Police Officers Association. They also inspired the media to take a serious dive into the history of athlete activists, particularly that frozen moment in time when bronze and gold medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith climbed the medal stand in 1968 and raised their fists in Mexico City.
But when it comes to athletes expressing their solidarity with Ferguson and the family of Michael Brown, the Rams players would do well to give a tip of their helmets to Knox University basketball player Ariyana Smith. Knox is a small college in Galesburg, Illinois. On Saturday, November 29th, before a game against Fontbonne in Clayton, Missouri, Ms. Smith made the "hands up don't shoot" gesture during the national anthem before walking toward the American flag. She then went prone on the floor for four and a half minutes, preventing the game from getting under way. Why four and a half minutes? Because Michael Brown lay in the street for four and a half hours after being killed. According to witnesses, Ariyana was being told to move repeatedly during the four and a half minutes, but refused until the entire period of time was completed.
She then left the building raising her fist in the air with a force that would make Carlos and Smith proud. She later said, ""I could not go into that gymnasium and pretend that everything was okay. I could not, in good conscience, play that game...I knew it was going to shock people. I knew they were going to be upset, but I couldn't let that stop me. I could not go to the city of St. Louis and not acknowledge the sacrifice the protesters were making with their bodies. People are being gassed. To me, that demonstration was absolutely respectful."
But for her brave act of resistance, Ariyana Smith was suspended from the team. The school quickly changed its tune, issuing a statement that Ariyana had been reinstated. In a statement on the Knox College website, the administration said, "Upon review of the situation and discussion with the team, and in recognition of the larger national context, the decision was made to reverse the suspension, and the player has been invited to resume all basketball activities." In other words, her team according to reports had total solidarity with her actions and the small liberal arts school was terrified of the backlash.
I spoke with John Carlos the day after the St. Louis Rams made their silent gesture. He said, "Asking them to just 'shut up and play' is like asking a human being to be paint on the wall. They have the right to say what they feel in their heart. A lot more athletes need to step up and speak up as well. These atrocities have been going on and we are saying enough is enough. I remember saying in 1968, you think I'm bad, just wait until this new generation comes out. I feel like that new generation is here at last." That new generation certainly is here, embodied heroically in the form of Ariyana Smith.
Image credit: AP; AP/LG Patterson