In 1968, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos ascended the Olympic medal podium in Mexico City wearing black socks (to symbolize black poverty), human rights badges and each a black leather glove on one fist. As the Star Spangled Banner began to play, the two men raised those fists into the air. It was a challenge to the racism of both the International Olympic Committee and an America that could cheer black men on to win gold, but sneered at their calls for basic dignity.
While the Olympic protest is now widely considered an act of bravery, it was not well received at the time. Sportscaster Brent Musburger famously said Smith and Carlos looked like “Black skinned storm-troopers,” while Time Magazine wrote of how the two “disaffected black athletes” put on a “public display of petulance.”
In the opening to the St. Louis Rams’ home game against the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 30, 46 years after the protest at the Mexico City games, five Rams players came out of the stadium tunnel and made the ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ gesture adopted by protestors after the Aug. 9 killing of an unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Some witnesses have said that Brown had his hands up when he was shot.
The Rams players, Jared Cook, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens and Tavon Austin, are all African Americans.
According to ABC News, Cook said of the gesture that, “We wanted to come out and show our respect to the protests and the people who have been doing a heck of a job around the world.”
How would the world react to this public display of solidarity with protestors in the midst of the Sunday football ritual? The world would react quite well. At the least, there were no loud rejoinders from Time Magazine. The same could not be said of the St. Louis Police Officers Association however, which released a statement asking for the five players to be disciplined and made to publicly apologize for thinking they might be free to make a statement of conscience.
“The St. Louis Police Officers Association is profoundly disappointed with the members of the St. Louis Rams football team who chose to ignore the mountains of evidence released from the St. Louis County Grand Jury this week and engage in a display that police officers around the nation found tasteless, offensive and inflammatory,” the statement read in part.
In discussing such a powerful instance of testicular fortitude on the part of law enforcement, I think the best possible response comes from the late, great Bill Hicks, “Jesus! What balls!”
Let’s put aside, just for the moment, the fact that the grand jury’s (extremely unusual) decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson is not a finding of guilt or innocence. For that you need a trial. But even if Wilson had been tried, and it turned out he was justified in killing Michael Brown, there would still be a problem. A problem worth talking about. A problem worth the discomfort some white people and some police officers may have felt at the sight of five professional football players reminding viewers that they have lives and minds and concerns that transcend pushing a pig skin around. Indeed, as Cook elaborated after the game:
“I just think there has to be a change. There has to be a change that starts with the people that are most influential around the world. No matter what happened on that day, no matter how the whole situation went down, there has to be a change.”
When black males are 21 times more likely to be fatally shot by police than white males, There’s a problem. Something needs to change.
When at least 14 teenagers, admittedly, not all of them unarmed, have been killed since the death of Michael Brown, there’s a problem. Even if each and every one of these killings is examined and be found to be justified, there would still be a problem. Something would need to change.
When large swaths of the population fear and distrust the police, and even if this were an issue of perception and not a belief justified by a long history of tangibly morbid facts, then there is a problem. Something needs to change.
Even if we set aside overt racism and unconscious racial bias, for which there is mounting scientific evidence, we still have this recent data point: On Nov. 22., Cleveland police killed an unarmed little boy named Tamir Rice. He had been playing with a realistic looking toy gun in a park, a concerned citizen called 911 and police killed him within seconds of arriving on the scene. The police believed he was closer to 20 year old. If the laws of the land and the tactics and perceptions of law enforcement are such that a 12-year old boy needs to monitor the nature of his play to keep from being shot dead, then there is a problem. Excessive force is a problem, and it disproportionately affects young black men, young black children. Something needs to change.
Thus spoke the hands of the five Rams players, held up and open rather than clenched in defiant fists.
And then the St. Louis Police Officers Association responded to this uppity effrontery in a statement both brazen and tone deaf: How dare you speak up? Go back to entertaining us. Shut your mouth and go back to your song and dance on the field. What balls indeed.
In some sense, this is more insulting than the facts of the recent deaths themselves, for in each of those we can see a tragedy in the classic sense, where the confluence of wills and tempers and bias and law and pure chance lead inexorably to someone’s death. But this call to sanction the players is no tragedy or the result of an unconscious bias. It’s a clear call to censor speech. Speech that addresses power and demands redress. Speech that calls out to fellow citizens and asks them for support in the face of injustice. That such speech is offensive to those in power is exactly why it is protected.
And this isn’t the first time since Michael Brown’s death that the speech of protest has been decried as so much boat rocking. Recall the suppression of the initial protests after Michael Brown was killed, the no fly zone and the manhandling and arrest of journalists. The police obsession with clearing protestors from the streets. These actions ensured that the Ferguson police would be remembered poorly no matter what came to light about Brown’s shooting. It’s interesting that Americans cheered on the Egyptians that filled Tahrir Square in Cairo night after night in 2011, resisting calls to disperse as they demanded the abdication of the dictator Hosni Mubarak. Yet in America, where the right to assembly and the redress of grievances and press freedom are part of our founding documents, protesters and reporters alike were told to stick to prescribed locations and designated hours.
Here’s a little truth: Protest that is fully sanctioned, sanitized and permitted does not do what protest must, which is to ruffle feathers and draw attention. It should not be violent, true, but it also should not be peaceful in the sense that it must cause friction and disturbance. In that light, it’s hard to see the actions of the Rams players as anything but perfect protest.
Yet in his statement for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, business manager Jeff Roorda was perfectly clear about his thoughts on Rams player’s protest.
“I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights,” he said. “Well I’ve got news for people who think that way, cops have first amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours.”
They most certainly have exercised those rights, and have done so in the fashion common to undemocratic institutions everywhere, moving away from dialogue and calling for the silence and censure of those who speak against them.
But surely the cops are entitled to express their own emotions? Of course. They are also human beings and citizens, but there are ways to speak that take into account their own privileged position and address the conversation rather than aiming to cut it off. Besides, calling for these players to be punished just makes the police look like giant assholes. In addition to training in how to deescalate conflicts, the St. Louis Police Officers Association might also consider hiring a public relations expert.
To its credit, the NFL appears unmoved by the St. Louis Police Officers Association’s fury. This at least, is a huge improvement on 1968, when the International Olympic Committee expelled Carlos and Smith from the games. I think the last word belongs John Carlos, who spoke to The Nation about the situation.
“How about those Rams? They may be under contract to play football, but greater than that, they have a right to care about humanity,” he said. “They have the right to feel whether something is just or unjust. They are entitled to their opinions, most centrally that Michael Brown’s life should not have been taken. 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.”