Amherst College student-athletes taking knees, raising fists in peaceful protests

  • Amherst College sophomore running back Biafra Okoronkwo is shown against Bowdoin earlier this season. Okoronkwo is a member of the Council of Amherst College Student-Athletes of Color. COURTESY AMHERST COLLEGE/GEOFFREY BOLTE/CLARUS STUDIOS INC.

  • Jimmy McMillian, center, of the Amherst College men’s soccer team, kneels during the national this season. COURTESY NICOLE REINER

For the Gazette
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

AMHERST — Across the Amherst College campus students are taking knees and raising their fists in a silent protest about police brutality in the United States.

Biafra Okoronkwo, an executive board member of the Council of Amherst College Student-Athletes of Color and a sophomore football player, has been working with the council to organize peaceful protests by athletes across campus.

“We as students of color and our allies, who demonstrate solidarity in the multifaceted forms in which that can take place are uniting, and shall raise our fists and lower our knees not against our nation, flag, military, or our anthem, but instead for awareness towards the plight that people of color face everyday through systematic oppression specifically in the form of police brutality,” Okoronkwo said on behalf of Black Men of Amherst Football and the council.

In 2016, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem in protest of the oppression faced by African-Americans and minorities in the United States.

Players from all levels and all sports across the country have since joined in the protests.

This season, the CACSAC has 30 active members staging peaceful protests during their athletic events.

When President Donald Trump criticized NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem, the issue grew and Amherst took notice.

“It got more attention after Trump’s comments,” Okoronkwo said. “More people reacted after Trump, and I, as a member of the Council of Amherst College Student-Athletes of Color, we thought we would get it back on track to its original message and original purpose.”

This weekend students from CACSAC, The Black Student Union, The Afro and Caribbean Student Union, La Causa, and the Asian Student Association are planning on staging multiple protests at sporting events around campus.

“We going to have people from multiple organizations coming out in all black and take a knee with us in the stands and possibly on the track surrounding the football field,” Okoronkwo said. “We’re not rioting in the streets, we’re not causing any of those issues, we’re peacefully protesting.”

The football team has made a conscious effort to address the issue, encouraging open dialogue between teammates and coaching staff.

“We had a lot of conversations about how one person could be all gung-ho and have family in the military and may stand proud and center for the flag, but they can still respect that some people have different pasts and different stories and have a different view of what the flag means,” sophomore Greg Franklin said.

Since September 2016, Amherst football players have been staging silent protests during the national anthem to raise awareness. Head coach E.J. Mills has been supportive of his players’ opinions.

“On some level it’s to keep that conversation going,” Mills said. “As a unit, as a group, we’re happy where everyone is at and we’re gonna respect everyone’s choices, not one is disrespectful.”

Players have reacted well to the conversations.

“The goal of our conversation wasn’t to have everyone take a knee at the end,” Franklin said. “It was to show that (protesting) was a way for us to express our opinions in a way that’s inviting.”

Added senior captain Bolaji Ekhator, “It’s done a lot to foster a sense of us all being in this together. If someone is doing something to disrespect or not acknowledge us, they’re doing it to all of us.”

A couple situations have united the athletic teams. In September, a rope was tied into a noose and left on the football field. Campus police identified two juveniles as responsible for the noose.

On Oct. 1, an alleged racist incident happened during a men’s soccer game between Amherst and Rutgers-Newark. Both players received yellow cards and the alleged victim of the racial slur received a red card less than one minute later.

“It’s been kind of a crazy year between a noose being found of the field and a player on the men’s soccer team being called the N-word, and as a team it’s really kind of only made us closer,” Ekhator said.

Soccer players Jimmy McMillian and Douglas Jaminson were the first on the team to kneel during the national anthem. They started last year after being inspired by Kaepernick.

Amherst men’s soccer coach Justin Serpone stated that he supports his team.

“These are complicated issues and there’s no right or wrong,” he said. “The 30 guys that I get the pleasure of coaching every day is what I really care about.”

For his final homecoming game, Ekhator is hoping for unity between both sides.

“We can have people kneeling and standing but not be divided,” Ekhator said. “Ultimately the goal of this is just to promote conversations.”