Before Kaepernick Took a Knee: Ferguson's NFL Protests

On November 30, 2014, an estimated fifty protesters chanted “We are Mike Brown!” outside the St. Louis Edward Jones Dome stadium. It was the fourth Rams game protest of the 2014 season. Tanks, military personnel, and police in riot gear surrounded the protesters, and soon made multiple aggressive arrests. The Rams protest capped off a week of store “shut downs,” including five malls in the St. Louis area on Black Friday after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. At the outset of the protest, a photo made its way around to protesters’ cell phones; you could hear a few expressions of “Look what we did!”

The instantly famous photo was of the Rams players Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin Stedman Bailey, Jared Cook, and Chris Givens emerging from the stadium tunnel in the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose.

After the game, Britt explained his act as one of solidarity with the Ferguson protesters: “I don’t want the people in the community to feel like we turned a blind eye to it.” Jared Cook added, “It’s kind of dangerous down there, and none of us want to get caught up in anything…. It takes some guts, it takes some heart.” Two years later, Colin Kaepernick would protest police “getting away with murder” by not standing for the National Anthem. According to ThinkProgress, “The Kaepernick Effect” inspired over 3,500 people and more than 200 similar sports protests – including 50 colleges and 68 high schools.

Kaepernick was inspired by the 2016 summer executions of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling – which Kap called “a lynching” – as well as the Ferguson Uprising, which author Howard Bryant called “The Awakening” in his brilliant book The Heritage, which documents Black athlete activism and “the politics of patriotism” from Paul Robeson to Kaepernick.

Following the murder of Trayvon Martin, a resurgence of NFL and NBA activism took place almost exclusively on Twitter, but rarely on the field or court. The Ferguson Uprising sparked the next level of athlete engagement, including two notable and courageous college student sports protests.

One day before that Rams game, Knox College basketball player Ariyana Smith protested ahead of a game against Fontbonne University, which is located just 12 miles from Ferguson. Smith made the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture during the “Star Spangled Banner” before walking toward the American flag and falling to the ground for 4.5 minutes to symbolize the 4.5 hours Michael Brown’s body was left on the ground after being killed. Smith’s use of her platform and the anthem came in the tradition of Toni Smith, the Manhattanville student athlete who protested the Iraq War in 2003 before her basketball game.

The Nation’s Dave Zirin called Smith “The First Athlete Activist of #BlackLivesMatter.” “I saw people putting themselves out on that line,” said Smith. “Standing up to call attention to the fact black lives matter. And I decided it was time to put myself on that line, too.”

A year later, University of Missouri student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike to protest racial injustice on campus. Butler inspired the football team to threaten boycotting a game unless their demands were not met – including the resignation of the university president. Once again, the Ferguson Uprising influenced student protests. “I had never seen that many black people mobilized in that way. So, it really struck a chord with me, to really have a passion for inspiring and building up my black community,” said Butler.

The protests of ordinary people have almost always preceded player activism, and we must recount the empowering truth of the people’s work. Let's look at the other three forgotten Ferguson protests at Rams games working backwards in time.

Lost Voices Upside-Down Flag Sports Protest

A protest led by Lost Voices – a committed group of mostly young Ferguson activists who marched every night and slept in tents for months to protest the non-arrest of Darren Wilson – ended in violent clash with Rams football fans who took issue with the use of an upside-down American flag.

The inverted flag, one of Lost Voices’ staple actions, was not new; Tea Party members used it to protest the Obama administration. But those were white people. For Lost Voices protester and flag owner Gina Gowdy, the flag’s purpose “symbolize[d] how our criminal justice system is upside down.” “If you want us to fix the flag, then you fix the system first.”

When another white man stole Gowdy’s flag, protesters Cheyenne Green and Dasha Jones chased the man and fought to retrieve their stolen. National media largely ignored the protest, and many local outlets used a still photo to mislead readers. It painted Green and Jones as perpetrators as they wrestled to regain control of their flag.

“He took everything out of him and spit in my daughter’s face,” said protester Tonja Bulley. “This big, tall white man… should’ve been locked up…and they did not lock him up.” Bulley and her 17-year-old daughter Brandy were arrested for their retaliatory punches. Bulley was initially charged with two felonies, which were later dropped. During the protest, African American women were spat on, punched, arrested, and jailed. Not only were they not reported as victims – they weren’t even reported as women. The initial white male violence inflicted on Black women did not even register. The Washington Times ran the headline “Ferguson protester uses American flag as weapon in clashes with Rams fans,” while citing the same photo from the St. Louis Post Dispatch whose coverage drew backlash from activists. The paper reported “the mother and daughter who were arrested are black. All of the victims are white, police say.”

“It really woke me up”, says Cheyenne Green today, “when we originally started protesting, we hadn’t really been outside of Ferguson. Until we started doing those demonstrations [in white areas] at games, I didn’t realize how much racism existed here in St. Louis alone.”

The arrests anticipated the damning 2015 Ferguson Report that showed African Americans accounted for 92-95 percent of all Ferguson arrests, warrants issued, failure to comply, and “manner of walking” charges that funded 25 percent of their police department. This oppressive collection agency fostered the intensity and duration of Ferguson Uprising as much as Mike Brown’s death.

#BlackLivesMatter On and Off the Field

On ESPN’s Monday Night Football, Colin Kaepernick threw for 343 yards and three touchdowns to lead the 49ers over the Rams in St. Louis. But did he see the banners drop by nearly 50 protesters inside the stadium, (including this author)? Multiple banners read: “Rams Fans Know Black Lives Matter On and Off the Field.”

But do they? Stadium protester Shannon Wilson described some of the racist taunting: “Some men began to dance as if to imitate monkeys, and shouted, verbatim, 'Shut the f*** up you monkeys.' I guess some Rams fans don't know that Black lives matter.” The banner and racist taunts highlighted the hypocrisy of white fans cheering on Black players, but not Black people less athletically gifted.

In her 2004 book, Black Sexual Politics, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins explains that the intense scrutiny paid to sports “operates as a morality play about American masculinity and race relations. Black athletes… become important visual status for playing out the new racism. Its rules are clear–submit to white male authority in order to learn how to become a man.”

The greatest evidence of Collins’ summation is NFL owners blackballing a non-compliant Kaepernick. NFL owners, and the many white fans they wish to appease, would rather lose more football games. “This is not a game to us,” said Ferguson activist Tory Russell after the protest. “We are fighting all across St. Louis.” The Rams game was merely one action that capped off a “Moral Monday” and “Weekend of Resistance” that included at least 56 arrests as hundreds protested at St. Louis City Hall, St. Louis University, at three Walmarts, and the Ferguson Police Department. The Washington Post reported: “They’re Everywhere.”

That included 50 additional protesters outside the Rams stadium, who were soon jubilantly joined by the 50 inside that were kicked out by police.

#NoJusticeNoFootball--The First Ferguson Sports Protests

When the Rams faced the Cowboys in 2014, there were no police in riot gear, arrests, violence, or major stadium disruptions. Just a powerful idea. All week, Ferguson activist Umar Lee called for “No Justice No Football” and threatened disruption: "You can't just drive in from the suburbs, drink your beer, and think it's business as usual going on in St. Louis,” said Lee leading up to the game. “It's not that kind of party."

By game time, only Lee and a few of his friends had tickets and protested inside the stadium, but the planned disruption shrunk crowds. ESPN’s Tim McMahon tweeted: “This is the smallest crowd I've ever seen for a Cowboys regular-season game. I've seen bigger crowds at Texas high school playoff games.”

Lee’s idea also inspired the hashtag #NoJusticeNoFootball, future Ram’s game protests, and even this author’s only real Ferguson foray into organizing beyond my journalistic lane. After seeing Lee’s idea, my wife and I purchased 50 tickets for that , and partnered with Ferguson organization Hands Up United to help make it happen. While Lee’s group protested inside the Ram’s game, a few dozen activists protested outside the Cardinals baseball game that same day. Five people from Hands Up United also protested inside the baseball game, though a photo of those protesters barely circulated. Two of the protesters were Tef Poe and T-Dubb, local hip-hop artists who amplified Ferguson’s “war cries” when few musicians had. And sadly, two of these five protesters, Bassem Masri and Darren Seals, are no longer with us. Masri passed in his sleep in 2018, and Seals was murdered in 2016 in a case activists say police made no real attempt to solve. Impacted by their activism or not, their deaths underscore the injustice of how we process athlete activism.

Pics of us inside Busch protesting #JusticeForMikeBrown #Ferguson risked arrest going in&we turnt it up shout us out

— Bassem Masri (@bassem_masri) September 22, 2014

After the Rams players, a slew of NBA players wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts following the non-indictment of Eric Garner’s killer Daniel Panteleo. For his daughter-turned-activist Erica Garner, the stress of her relentless fight for justice led to her 2017 death at age 27. The athletes Ferguson activists inspired are etched into sports history, but the Lost Voices who faced racist violence and abuse at multiple sports protests struggle today to keep their cell phones on. Athlete acts of solidarity should be commended, and Kaepernick deserves every bit of love he gets. However, the whole history must be told. The people almost always precede the players.

The notion that athlete activist icons just sprout from thin air is not only ahistorical, but dangerous. It erases all the Lost Voices, Ferguson Frontliners, Baltimore Uprisers, women, and LGBTQ activists who helped create the space for male athletes with the largest sports platforms to summon their best selves. It also disempowers all the future Ariyana Smiths, Jonathan Butlers, and Toni Smiths who think they must possess Colin’s skills to change this world.

Ferguson’s forgotten NFL protests and impact on modern athlete activism must be properly recounted to reaffirm the historical truth captured in a famous June Jordan poem, and popular saying on Ferguson’s streets: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

About the Author

Chuck Modiano is an educator, journalist, and youth advocate dedicated to exposing power, oppression, and privilege in sports and policing. He has amplified marginalized voices at protests including Ferguson, Baltimore, Standing Rock, Selma (#50), and Charlottesville. He is currently a sports columnist for the New York Daily News, and has been a contributing author to “Killing Trayvons” and “Football Culture and Power.”