With the nation boiling over from coast to coast over the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent grand jury decision not to indict his killer, Officer Darren Wilson, protests are happening in the streets of Ferguson, Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, and more.
Ferguson protestors have shut down freeways, attempted to halt the iconic Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and had a not insignificant impact on Black Friday sales. One of the most iconic sights of the movement has been the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture attributed to Brown in the moments before his death; it has since been adopted by crowds at vigils, protesters in the streets, and…professional sports teams.
At a home game this weekend, Saint Louis Rams players Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Kenny Britt, Chris Givens and Jared Cook raised their hands in solidarity as they took the field, later linking arms in the air during the singing of the national anthem. The gesture has proved to be an explosive and iconic moment in the growing Ferguson-related protests; the nationally-televised act of political speech has attracted ire and praise alike. The Saint Louis Police Officers Association has demanded that the players be reprimanded, while their own coach says that he has no interest in doing so.
They followed in the footsteps of members of Washington, D.C.’s football team, which also took the field with their hands in the air earlier this year. Meanwhile, Arkansas runningback Jonathan Williams attracted condemnation for doing the same. They join a long legacy of athletes using their high profile and public following as a medium for political speech and stark statements about society; in 1968, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in a Black Power salute on the Olympic podium, with their white teammate wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity. The gesture attracted equal amounts of public furor, and has become an iconic moment in sporting history.
In an interview with Dave Zirin, Carlos commented on the controversy over the Rams, noting that: “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.”
While they weren’t the first to make the gesture, let alone in a highly public location, they seem to have created a snowball effect. On Monday, Representative Kakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) took “hands up, don’t shoot” to the House floor. “People are fed up all across America because of the injustice involved in continuing to see young, unarmed African-American men killed as a result of a gunshot fired by a law enforcement officer,” he said, after raising his hands before his fellow Congresspeople.
Representative Al Green (D-Texas) also took to the floor, demanding recognition for the Rams players who had taken up the gesture and commending their actions as “heroic.” At Howard University, scores of students gathered in solidarity in the days following Brown’s death; the striking image of the students standing together, hands in the air, has become one of the most enduring of the movement.
This is about more than just a simple hand gesture, though. It’s about the political movement it symbolizes, and the right to political speech. As protestors employ “hands up, don’t shoot” across the United States, athletes, too, have the right to use the gesture. In fact, one might argue that they almost have an obligation, as Carlos put it. Athletes and other public figures are in a position of tremendous power and influence, and by adopting the gesture, they can send a powerful message to their followers, pushing not only for justice for Mike Brown, but also for reforms to a system that eats young Black and brown men alive.
The Rams shouldn’t be disciplined, nor should they be forced to apologize, because they did nothing wrong. They exercised their First Amendment rights, those guaranteed to all in the United States; if fans have a problem with where they did it, they can choose not to tune in next time.