Cheerleaders, choir join national protest
October 17, 2017
Before arguably the biggest football game of the year, against rival LBJ High School on Sept. 29, “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to play and seven of the cheerleaders all dropped to one knee. While the first half was still underway, there was an article published on statesman.com that triggered a fierce debate in its comment section.
The cheer squad was following the lead of the #TakeAKnee movement, in which professional football players have been kneeling during the national anthem. It began over a year ago, when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling to call attention to police violence against African-American citizens.
The protest recently gained new traction after President Donald J. Trump decried Kaepernick at a political rally in Alabama, saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’?”
In the wake of his comments, which NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell described as “divisive,” the following weekend every NFL team made some sort of demonstration of solidarity; players either remained in their locker rooms, linked arms with one another or knelt as the national anthem played.
Vice President Mike Pence left a NFL game between the Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 8 after players from both sides knelt during the anthem; he claimed he didn’t want to “dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers”.
After the initial protests over Trump’s comments garnered national attention, cheerleaders McKenna Carpenter and Daejha Taylor decided to do a protest of their own.
“I am choosing to stand up for what’s right, and I choose to use my freedom of speech in a way I deem appropriate,” said Taylor, who is a senior as well as a captain of the cheer squad. “Taking a knee is about police brutality and racial inequality. It’s not about the anthem. Young black men are being killed everyday, and no one is doing anything about it, and by kneeling I’m bringing attention to the problem peacefully. … It’s not to disrespect the country, it’s to bring awareness to the problems the country has and not ignore them.”
Once Carpenter and Taylor initially had the idea for their squad to kneel, they went to their cheerleading coach, Chastity Colbert, to request her permission. Colbert says she was at first apprehensive about allowing them to become the subject of widespread attention from the media but eventually decided that she should allow it after hearing their reasoning.
“When they asked me, at first I had to think about it, and I talked to Mr. Garrison about the legalities and made sure it was OK,” Colbert said. “And then we sat down as a team and we talked about why they were protesting and what they were feeling, and they went around and they talked about why they wanted to kneel. They had very good responses and were very articulate about their cause, and so I just felt like, if this is something they wanted to do, then I was going to support them, because they are good students. So I left it up to them to decide and also made sure I got permission from their parents to make sure it was OK with them if they were going to kneel as well.”
Cheerleader Angelina Coleman says that she was initially anxious about kneeling, as her brother was in the Navy, but he gave his blessing once she asked him before the game about kneeling. She adds that she chose to participate because she wanted to protest systematic racism, police brutality, President Trump’s threat to end DACA and frequent mass shootings in the country.
“I researched how it started with Colin Kaepernick just sitting, and then one of his player friends, who’s a veteran, told him he felt it would be more respectful to kneel, the same way guys kneeled when their fallen brothers were taken out in their caskets with flags covering it,” Coleman said. “It’s like a sign of respect for your fallen brothers. And then it turned into so much more for me, it turned into not only taking a knee to protest police brutality, but taking a knee for my fallen brothers, fallen people in America who have been disproportionately marginalized and oppressed. Every time a case of police brutality explodes like Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, all these names come to my mind every time I’m kneeling, I’m kneeling for them. I’m kneeling for all the injustices I feel in are in America, and I’m taking a knee for that because I’m putting myself half-mast the way they put a flag half mast when there’s a national tragedy because I feel there’s an unspoken national tragedy that’s just so common that it’s not talked about anymore.”
According to Carpenter, a little more than half of the cheerleaders kneeled that first time. They have kneeled at every game since, most recently Friday night at the Battle of the Bell against Travis.
“Our intention was of course to not disrespect the national anthem or any war veterans at all; it was to bring awareness,” Carpenter said. “I am not a minority, but I feel like as an ally I want to do all that I can to bring awareness to the Trump administration and the way he has been talking about minorities and women and all subjugated groups in general. It was our way to take a stand in a peaceful way.”
Senior Sai Hunsucker-Pollock says that she personally chose to kneel because she currently feels unsafe as a minority in her country.
“[I kneeled] because of social injustice,” Hunsucker-Pollock said. “I feel like the American flag, with everything America stands for at this point, is not in support of my skin color. With everything going on politically, I feel like kneeling is a respectful way to protest.”
Not all of the cheerleaders took a knee. Senior Lilly Ponce didn’t participate, as she has military veterans in her family who, when she asked their permission, told her that it was disrespectful to them.
“[The kneeling is considered disrespectful] because the national anthem is for the people who fought and risked their lives and died defending the United States, and we have always been taught to stand for the anthem as a way to show our respect,” Ponce said. “Kneeling kind of does the opposite.”
Taylor maintains that the issue has not divided the squad and that they are all making an effort to understand and respect each other’s opinions.
“We don’t judge each other for our opinions; to each their own,” she said. “We don’t let it divide us, because at the end of the day, we are a team.”
On the same week that the McCallum cheerleaders began their participation in the protest, six Austin High football players knelt during the anthem in their game against Crockett. The players have continued to kneel while the national anthem is played at games ever since, while their teammates have locked arms with one another in a show of solidarity.
None of the McCallum football players have knelt during the anthem, but junior running back Deron Gage said that he supports the cheerleaders in their endeavor.
“It takes a lot of heart to do something like that,” Gage said. “I’m glad to walk the halls of McCallum every day knowing that we have people like them.”
The Shield reached out Coach Charles Taylor for comment; he declined after AISD sent out an email discouraging coaches from speaking to the media in light of his and other coaches’ comments to the Austin-American Statesman. Colbert spoke to The Shield prior to the district’s directive.
“If my kids made the decision to [kneel], I’d support my kids,” Taylor told the Statesman on Sept. 29. “I love my kids. If they want to hit a knee, I’d support them because they are good kids.”
On the day of the LBJ game, Sept. 29, certain choir members took a knee, and some of the members of both the cheer squad and the choir linked arms while the national anthem played at the pep rally. Senior Nico Leuba-Jones, who helped organize the choir’s protests, feels strongly that students still have an inalienable right of free speech.
“The Bill of Rights gives us rights of freedom of expression and freedom to organize, freedom to peacefully protest,” Leuba-Jones said. “Students may be minors, but they’re still citizens who have those rights, and it is inappropriate for a public institution such as a school to take away the fundamental rights of students. Teens have a voice, and it’s not fair for schools to silence that.”
Choir director Allison Kashdan says that she was aware of her students’ plans prior to the pep rally and decided to support their right to protest for a cause in which they believe.
“I feel that a lot of our students are very well informed with current events, and they’re very passionate about current political issues, and I feel that it’s important for them to be able to voice their opinions and express themselves,” Kashdan said. “I wouldn’t want it to interfere with their learning or the learning of other students, but I definitely feel that students should have their voices heard.”
Leuba-Jones believes that though he organized the pep rally protest in the original spirit of the movement, to protest police brutality against African-Americans, he supports the more recent cause that it’s taken on: condemning the Trump administration’s actions and policies.
“I do think people have started to kneel for broader reasons … a general dissatisfaction with the way our country’s being run with our president, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, because I feel like this protest is a way to show that you don’t believe that the values of freedom and unity and respect are being upheld in our country,” Leuba-Jones said. “The president is allowed to think what he thinks. But in addition, the time period and the way in which he was making [his comments about the NFL] was so inappropriate with Maria having just hit Puerto Rico; within the three or four days after Puerto Rico was devastated by Maria, he tweeted about the NFL kneeling 12 times and didn’t tweet about Maria once. I don’t understand how someone can lack the compassion.”
The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 25, 2017
Both the cheerleaders and choir members who chose to kneel went to Principal Mike Garrison for his blessing before they began their protest. Other high school principals have forbidden their students from protesting the flag or anthem; earlier in October, a Houston high school student was expelled for not standing during the Pledge of Allegiance, and multiple public high schools nationwide have warned student athletes not to kneel during the anthem at sporting events or risk disciplinary action.
School administrators aren’t the only organizations considering policies which would require athletes to stand during the anthem. NFL Players, owners, executives and the NFL Players Association met in New York held a meeting today lasting more than three and a half hours in order to discuss changing the anthem policy to prohibit players from kneeling at games. When the meeting ended, the NFL and NFLPA released a statement in which they claimed it was a “productive meeting,” and “pledged on meeting again.”
While some NFL owners and some school administrators have opted to punish athletes who kneel, Garrison chose not to ban the protest but rather to support their First Amendment rights.
“People have rights to freedom of speech, so it didn’t bother me that they were kneeling,” Garrison said. “There have been some messages, emails, and phone calls to me from some in support of the fact that the students kneeled and then some opposed. What I tell the people that call me, whether they support it or they do not support it, is that there is no law against it, there is no district policy or school policy against it, and students have the right of freedom of speech as long as it is not disruptive.”
Colbert has been concerned about the scrutiny from the internet as a result of the media’s coverage on the cheerleaders and their protest.
“I didn’t want it to be a big media spectacle,” Colbert said. “I really just wanted the girls to peacefully protest, and I wanted to protect the girls as well so that their words didn’t get twisted around [and] they [wouldn’t] receive any personal backlash from others.”
Colbert’s worries were not unjustified; the Austin-American Statesman published their article about their demonstration, and within days there were more than 1,000 comments, many of them negative. The cheerleaders said that though the comments bothered them at first, they learned to let it slide.
“I went to the comments section to look; it got to me for like half a second, but then I realized these people don’t know anything about it, [and] they don’t know me,” Coleman said. “They called me privileged and all these things like that that I’m not, so it just proved that they don’t know anything, and they’re just trying to get angry for their own agenda. That’s fine for them; it doesn’t bother me. Last game was an actual time I heard it in person. There was a woman in the stands who got angry at us, and she told us to stop being disrespectful once the anthem was over.”
One opinionated social-media commenter reached out to The Shield via the MacJournalism Facebook page to voice her complaints (she wishes to remain anonymous). She has alumni and current McCallum students in her family and is upset with those who protested at the game.
“I think these children are kneeling against cops, but if something were to happen who would they call?” the commenter wrote in a Facebook message. “Not all cops are bad, just as not all people are bad. I know the kneeling is in protest of blacks being shot by cops. What about blacks being shot by blacks in gangs? The children actually have no clue as to what they are protesting; it goes much deeper than race or police. It’s a division of the United States of America. I think football is a team sport; you play as a team, and you work as a team, and unless the whole team kneels, it’s disrespectful to the rest of the team. If the children wish to protest and kneel, they should do it on their own time, not on the rest of the team’s time.”
Many who disagreed with their actions similarly proclaimed the cheerleaders to be uninformed, but those on the squad who kneeled maintain that did not make the decision lightly or out of ignorance and that they don’t resent those who disagree with them.
“Don’t kneel because you see everybody else doing it because that takes away from it,” Coleman said. “You don’t know what’s happening, and don’t think that because you’re standing with your hand over your heart that you’re against us, or [that] we don’t like you because that’s not how it is.”
McCallum parent Susanna Cohen says she feels that those who feel offended have misinterpreted the true intention of the protest and that the cheerleaders are well within the boundaries of their First Amendment rights.
“The only issue I have is the way the protest has been re-branded as a protest against veterans, the anthem and the flag,” Cohen said. “That’s not what it’s about; it’s about the systematic racial injustice in our country. I don’t see anything wrong with the cheerleaders kneeling to acknowledge this problem. It’s their right. It’s upsetting to see the negative reactions from people about this silent expression of beliefs. It’s only disrespectful if you’ve decided you have the right to tell people what their protest is really about, as if they are not able to articulate it for themselves.”
Like many of the cheerleaders, Hunsucker-Polluck asserts that she is unshaken in the convictions that led her to kneel in the first place, and no amount of backlash will keep her from protesting for a cause she believes in.
“I know why I was kneeling, and I’m proud of myself of doing it,” she said. “So really, anyone else’s comments are unnecessary.”
Additional reporting by Emma Baumgardner, Anna Compton, Julie Robertson, Gregory James and Abigail Salazar.