High school students explain why they protest anthems and pledges

FILE - In this Oct. 2, 2016 file photo, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, left, and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif.  The 49ers won't be forcing their players to stand during the national anthem, safety Eric Reid said Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. Reid, the first player to join Colin Kaepernick in protest last season, said he had a conversation recently with 49(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys. –AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

In August, 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began sitting, and then kneeling, during the national anthem before games as a protest against racist treatment of black people in the United States. His gestures created a new front in the national conversation about race, policing and patriotism.

His action spread beyond the NFL, to soccer fields and basketball courts, and into high schools across the country. In recent weeks, as more players in the NFL have locked arms, taken a knee or raised their fists during the national anthem, some students have again taken similar actions.

We asked high school students to tell us why they sit or kneel during the national anthem or Pledge of Allegiance, or why they stand and recite the words. Here is what they had to say.

Naylah Williams, 17

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New York; Knelt during football games this year

My first reaction to seeing Colin Kaepernick kneeling was: Why did he do this? And what does it mean to him? I Googled it, I looked on social media, I talked to my parents. One thing my mom said to me is that I wouldn’t be thinking about this so much if it didn’t mean a lot to me. It was bothering me that I was thinking about not kneeling because it’s one of those things where I can’t sit back and watch everything happen and not say something about it.

In school, we learn about America and why things are the way they are. To take a step back and look at how things are, you can see that something doesn’t add up. The America we learn about in school is about justice and the fundamental rights that this country is built on, including that everyone has the same rights. That’s not happening. People from different races have fought for different rights, and people are not giving them those rights.

There was one football player that approached a few other cheerleaders and me. He told me this is what they wanted to do and why they wanted to do it. I wanted to make sure they weren’t doing it just to follow what NFL players did. I wanted people to see that there is social injustice, racial inequality and police brutality. I didn’t want people to use that as an excuse to make a name for themselves. I wanted them to kneel because they felt in their heart that was the right thing to do.

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I was definitely nervous. It’s not easy standing up for something that could cause so much controversy, but when you know it’s right, it makes it easier. Some people were supportive. This one lady came up to me and said I was so inspirational and that she wanted a picture with me. Another lady dropped off flowers for me at school.

There was a lot of hate that went around. Some of the football players received death threats and people saying it was disrespectful to kneel. It went around a lot more than we anticipated. So many other people were posting it. It was getting hundreds of thousands of likes, so a lot of people had a lot to say. The football players were scared. I was scared. We didn’t expect it to get so big, and we didn’t know how to handle it.

The second game I knelt at, there were people in the parking lot with a Confederate flag. It was nauseating. Not many people show up to the games. Going out to the stands and seeing all these people show up, I realized this is bigger than I thought it was going to be. I feel that with time, people will understand. Changing someone’s view on something isn’t easy to do.

I’m happy with it. I’m proud of myself for standing up for something I believe in, even if other people don’t. The people who know why I did it, I want them to know they’re not alone. It’s a lot scarier to do something by yourself than when you have people doing it with you.

Trenton Faulkner, 18

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Texas; Always stands for the national anthem

I really choose to stand to show respect to everyone who is in service, who is on duty at the moment. They give so much and they get so little. The national anthem, the pledge, it’s all showing respect to people doing their duty overseas in order for us to have the freedom to protest.

My dad and my brother both served in the army, and I’m trying to go into the Navy SEALs. People coming back from the war and facing personal issues, this probably makes them feel so low.

I know it’s a right whether or not to stand or sit, but overall it’s showing respect to people who are fighting for us. We hardly ever give them anything back. These football players get paid millions of dollars a day to sit on a bench. People who are fighting wars get paid $26,000 a year.

I think the kids kneeling in high schools are following a trend. There are only a few who will actually dedicate their time to this subject. All the kids like to follow the trends. They probably don’t really reason with what they’re doing. They feel like it’s cool to follow along.

It’s an OK thing to recognize an issue with race. Some people complain they’re not getting paid as much as someone else or that they’re getting treated wrong because of their race. Maybe the right place to really protest would be D.C. Doing a peaceful march and doing speeches in Washington would be the most beneficial plan for them.

Jahmire Cassanova, 17

New York; Knelt during games this year and last year

At our homecoming in October, one other person in my grade, a person in the grade above me, and I decided to kneel for the national anthem. That was the only time we had the anthem before the game. We all identify as black males. It was a bit interesting that we were the only ones who did it.

A couple of days earlier we had been talking about kneeling for the anthem. It was a natural conversation we were having in response to all the things going on with Colin Kaepernick. Growing up as a black male, and not adhering to stereotypes of what a black male in the U.S. could be, I’ve always been very sensitive to acts that lack equity in the population of black males.

My parents always had conversations about how I should conduct myself based on real-life violence that occurs and based on stereotypes. Would I come home late? Would I take the subway? It has always been an uneasy thing for me to handle, especially when I was younger. It’s a discomfiting feeling to always have to present yourself a certain way, especially when you know the type of person you are and the goals you’re setting for yourself. As I got older, I realized how you are doesn’t matter as much as it should because other individuals can’t tell those things just by looking at you.

When I knelt, on the one hand I felt connected to people who protest against racial inequality and discrimination, but at the same time I felt a disconnect from a number of people in the community at Horace Mann. Not because they weren’t kneeling but because I was, and I wasn’t sure if they shared the same sentiments I do about racial discrimination.

Ellie Vahey, 16

Ohio; Knelt during soccer games

A teammate approached me about the idea to take a knee in order to show solidarity with victims in our country of violence and oppression, specifically minorities. We obviously don’t have the platform that professional athletes do. We knew this wouldn’t solve the problem, but we thought it would be a good way to evoke conversation and get people in our community to confront what has been going on in the news.

The first time, there were eight of us. It’s been that number consistently. We’ve done it at three games.

We wrote an email to the athletic director in our school on behalf of three of us who had interest. We weren’t asking for permission since it’s a constitutional right, but we wanted to keep everybody on the same page.

Since our team is almost all white, some people felt that taking a knee wasn’t the best way to solve the problem or to protest. When you see someone white taking a knee, it can be almost like, “Oh, they don’t have anything to complain about. Why are they taking a knee?”

But the message we wanted to send is solidarity with minorities who face violence at the hands of police officers in our country. Because of my race and how I was born, I was born into a position of privilege. I felt like I have a moral obligation to do something and not be silent. There are situations where you can’t be a bystander. It’s important to make a gesture and raise your voice, even if that voice is a small one.

In America one of the most beautiful things is we have the right to express our opinions how we want to. If people are feeling obligated to stand for the national anthem, I think that’s a very big red flag. Because America is not the land of the free for everyone in our country, I think that people should have the right to see America both for its accomplishments but also for its flaws. For a coach to tell a player not to take a knee, that goes against everything our country stands for and the rights that the brave men and women that serve this country fight for.

Emma Cowen, 17

New York; Has not stood for the Pledge of Allegiance in school consistently for two years

It was about two years ago that I stopped saying it every day.I’m a senior in high school. In 10th grade, I wouldn’t say it, but I would stand up. Now as my own silent protest, I sit during the Pledge of Allegiance.

I have no connection to religion whatsoever. The fact that they added the “under God” part to the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t represent me, and it doesn’t represent others who do not have religious affiliations.

I definitely support the reasons that Colin Kaepernick keeps referring to. The tension between the police and African-Americans is not being resolved in a way that is benefiting the African-American community. The police system is not being altered in a way that will make it not inherently racist and allow it to protect every individual regardless of color. What I’m upset by is a coach saying, “I will bench someone who takes a knee.” That’s an injustice because you can’t exercise your freedom of speech by doing a silent, personal protest.

There are things you can do besides saying the pledge to show that you support this country even if it might not support you. My mom is a public school teacher. For her, it’s helping others get a public school education. For me, it’s standing up for the rights that the country has promised to protect — I went to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.

Caroline Slack, 17

Virginia; Stands for the Pledge of Allegiance but shows her opinion in other ways

I saw the news when Colin Kaepernick kneeled. But nothing ever really came up at my high school physically for a while. Most of the time the protests happen during the Pledge of Allegiance. For example, after the presidential election a lot of people I knew were considering staying seated during the Pledge of Allegiance. If you are sitting, they know what you’re standing for or against.

I stand because I have family who is in the military, and I have a lot of reasons why I would stand for the flag. But, I don’t put my hand over my heart because while I do stand for the United States, I know that there are issues that need to be addressed. Issues that I will not personally face because I am a white girl in the South in a middle-class family. So when taking my hand off my heart, it’s my way of acknowledging that there’s something happening. But it’s a kind of a quieter way of showing my opinion.

I don’t want to be someone who stands by and watches it. I want to be active. It’s hard to be active just standing or sitting. I think that when I get into college I’ll be able to be more public about my beliefs and my opinions. But for now leaving my hand off my heart kind of shows that there is something wrong with what’s happening.

A.J. Cabrera

Illinois; Took a knee alongside her dance team at a football game

Before the national anthem, my whole dance team took a knee, as well as the football team and the cheerleading team. And my own superintendent came up and gave a speech about microaggressions and racial hatred among our communities and in this country. He wanted to make it clear that bigotry wasn’t tolerated at the school. And he wanted to make it clear that we were all in it together.

The kneeling was something that we talked about during the week. With my team, we had to make it clear that it wasn’t just a trend, we weren’t doing it just because the cheerleading squad was doing it or because the football players were. But because we actually wanted to take a stand for what we believed in.

I took a knee because I feel that to stand for the flag is to agree that it is a symbol of freedom and justice. For me, to stand for the anthem and to put my hand on my heart feels a bit ironic considering the fact that we are not living an American dream. There are so many things wrong that we still need to fix and address.

I think that while racism is erased from the laws, women have rights and the laws prohibit racial bigotry, that doesn’t mean it is not abundant in society. You can still see very clear examples of this when you read the news. For example, if you look at the Las Vegas shooter, who was white, most of the headlines I see describe the shooter as the “least expected to do this,” or “he was a humble man,” or “he was a nice neighbor.” But shooters of other races immediately get the label of what they are, these people are terrorists, these people are murderers. While this man, who caused one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, is given a humane perspective.

When I was taking a knee and I saw everyone else joining us in the action of taking a knee, I just felt really powerful and united with everyone at my school. I felt really proud of my community and how we had all come together.