Protest, Power, and the St. Louis Rams

Jeff Roorda wants the Rams to be quiet. 

His statement is a lot longer than that of course.  Speaking for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, Roorda had plenty to say about the five St. Louis Rams players who took the field with the "Hands Up, Don’t Shoot" gesture in Sunday’s win over the Oakland Raiders.  According to Roorda, it is "unthinkable" that the Rams players would choose to send such a "tasteless, offensive, and inflammatory" message.

You can read Roorda’s full statement here, and there’s a lot to unpack.  There’s the incendiary, racially coded reference to "violent thugs burning down buildings."  There’s the haughty dismissal of the continuing questions that surround Michael Brown’s death, the assertion that any narrative of wrongdoing, "has been disproven over-and-over again."  Then, of course, there are a number of tortured football metaphors, with Roorda calling the protest "way out-of bounds" and insisting that the NFL "throw a flag on this play."

So yes, there was a lot to digest in Roorda’s response, but if you boil it all down, the message is simple:  Stay silent.  Move along.  Just go play football already, and leave the politics, and the policy, to somebody else.  As far as the SLPOA is concerned, the conversation about Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, and what happened on that August night in Ferguson, is over.  It’s time for everyone who’s out on the streets to go back home, it’s time for reporters to find something else to write about, and it’s time for the Rams to put their hands down and go run routes.  And when you think about it, this approach makes perfect sense, from the police union’s perspective.

The easiest way to win a debate, is to not have one at all.

Tavon Austin and his teammates offered a reminder of just how powerful an athlete’s voice can be.

2014 has revealed, in a variety of ways, just how powerful the voice of the athlete can be.  Michael Sam served as an inspirational figure for the LGBT community, simply by living in his own truthKain Colter, Ed O’Bannon, and other current and former college athletes have galvanized the movement to reform the NCAA.  And then, in April, the Golden State Warriors nearly brought their own game to a halt, constructing a plan to leave the court if Donald Sterling had not been sufficiently disciplined for his racist invectives.

Just imagine that.  Imagine if, on national television, in the middle of one of the biggest events of the year, an entire team had simply walked off, refused to participate, and declined to be a part of our bread and circus, until they saw the change they demanded.  It would have been, without question, one of the most impactful moments in sports history.

On Sunday, five members of the St. Louis Rams made a far more modest statement.  They were not out to halt a game, nor refusing to participate in it.  They were doing nothing, in fact, to disrupt the multi-billion dollar business of the NFL.  Their only goal, their only aim, was to show the world that yes, they were paying attention.  The "Hands Up, Don’t Shoot" gesture has become a rallying symbol for the community in Ferguson, and across the country.  It is, in a way, simultaneously compliant and defiant.  The raised hands say to anyone watching that no, the goal is not violence, destruction, or retribution.  But the steadfast pose serves notice that yes, the world is watching, and the status quo is no longer acceptable.

"Hands Up, Don’t Shoot" has become a powerful symbol as America continues to grapple with race, class, and not-so-blind-justice.

We will likely never know the precise truth of what transpired between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, due to conflicting witness accounts, an imperfect investigation, and the inherent challenge of getting to a truly unbiased truth.  But there are a few things we know for certain.  We know that when an unarmed man is shot dead, be it an eighteen-year-old in the middle of the street, a seventeen-year-old wearing a hoodie, or a twelve-year-old with a BB gun, it is a needless tragedy, and one that should be prevented.  We know that, according to all available data, African-Americans are far more likely to die while being arrested, or in police custody, than Caucasians.  And we know, because we have seen it play out time and time again, that much of the country still grapples with a deep mistrust in the institutions that are supposed to protect us all.

This is, without question, a conversation worth having, and the Rams receiving corps should be celebrated for bringing it to the forefront.  America needs to be talking about race, and class, and justice, and it’s a shame that while members of St. Louis’ football team try to start a dialogue, its police union has nothing to say.  Then again, maybe it’s to be expected.  When a movement forms to tell the world that "Black Lives Matter", you can’t plausibly answer back that they don’t.  So instead, you dart, you dodge, you dig in your heels, and refuse to accept that there are reforms you might make, lessons you might learn.

The St. Louis Police Department spent Monday asserting they’d received an apology, even as Rams’ COO Kevin Demoff maintained that he had offered none.  Such is the surreal situation we find ourselves in.  An unarmed man is shot a dozen times, his dead body left in the middle of the street for nearly four hours, and the police offer little in the way of regret, and reflection.  But five athletes take a few moments to raise their arms, to signal that they stand with the people of Ferguson, Missouri, and the calls ring out for apology, for repudiation, for a disavowal of this disgusting display.  Apparently, the real sin in today’s America is not ending a life, but daring to suggest that perhaps we can do a better job protecting it.

The power of the Rams’ protest has only grown in the days following their Sunday win over the Raiders.

If Jeff Roorda’s goal was to dismiss the Rams’ protest, than his efforts have backfired in an entirely predictable fashion.  The NFL, for better, and for worse, remains one of the few institutions with a real stranglehold on the American consciousness.  Football is everywhere we turn, and thanks to Roorda’s obstinacy, our news cycle is saturated with the image of five men, hands raised, with a simple, but powerful message: We see what is happening, and we refuse to look away.

There is a real enemy to be feared in St. Louis County, but it isn’t the police, it isn’t the protesters, and it certainly isn’t the five Rams receivers with something to say.  No, the enemy is apathy, because the worst thing that could happen in the wake of Michael Brown’s death would be for us to stop talking about it.  Real social change doesn’t come without engagement, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Jared Cook, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens, and Tavon Austin.  On Sunday, they proved the old adage that a powerful picture is worth a thousand words.

And now it falls on all of us, to keep talking.