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Why the protest at the EMU game was so important

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The First Amendment is a powerful thing. The EMU protestors used it to their advantage.

Kenneth Bailey

A lot of people saw the events that transpired at Eastern Michigan University on Saturday night and chalked it up as a one-off type of protest. A response to national events, if you will.

The reality is, this has been a long time coming in Michigan.

A lot of focus has been placed in areas such as Chicago, St. Louis and other such places where racially-charged incidences have occurred. They gain their reputations rightly; although Florida was the original starting point for all the Black Lives Matter movement, many see Ferguson and St. Louis as the catalyst of our current discussions and Chicago as the “poster child” for the tensity of race relations.

Detroit, too, is often brought up in these discussions, with conversation revolving the “white flight” to the suburbs in the 1960’s and 1970’s following the race riots and the decline of the economy, which shut down many area car manufacturers.

However, that’s not the only area of concern. Detroit Public Schools became infamous last year after it was revealed that the schools were kept in deplorable condition and that the system was in failure of going bankrupt. DPS was also the worst-performing school system in the state by a mile with more than half of the “Bottom 5 List” being made up of DPS schools. (The city of Detroit, per the 2010 Census, was 82 percent black and 10.6 percent white.)

Nearby, Flint has also been disproportionately affected by a water crisis, which many blame on Gov. Rick Snyder’s cost-cutting measures, which many critique as hurting lower-class citizens in towns and municipalities, with 17 percent increase in poverty levels statewide. Flint, too, has been victim to the same troubles as Detroit and perhaps even more so. Forty-one percent of Flint residents fall under the poverty line, with the average resident making $24,679 per year, per the 2010 Census. Flint is a majority black city, with 57 percent of the population being black.

Over the last two years, Americans of all backgrounds have started to recognize that more should be done to address clear problems with how African-Americans have been unfairly affected by policy, whether politically, culturally, or otherwise.

There have been many protests that have failed to bring about change or success; one only has to look at the unfortunate events in Charlotte to see that. The Dallas protest ultimately ended up in an active shooter situation that sent the protest’s original message onto the back-burner.

Colin Kaepernick’s actions got a lot of attention, but was ultimately turned into an entirely different argument by opponents who refused to see what he was doing it for in the first place. Which was a shame.

In Ypsilanti, the protests came about after racist graffiti started to appear (and then reappear) on the campus of Eastern Michigan University last week. Following the protests, their fears were confirmed in neighboring Ann Arbor about 18 miles away. There, pamphlets were passed around the University of Michigan that advocated “white pride” and discouraged white women from dating black men by members of “alt-right” groups.

Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor both surround Detroit and hold thousands of students from the area, especially at EMU.

Incidents like those pamphlets and the rash of graffiti are a culture clash at its best and at worst, a damning indictment of the American social fabric today and its ongoing evolution towards tribalism that will affect America’s ability to stick by its “all men are created equal” mantra.

The EMU protest was the very best protest that could have been done, given the situation.

For days before the game, groups had gathered in bunches and protested at various sites across campus peacefully, demanding answers and the support of EMU administrators.

EMU administrators released a statement soon after the incidents and promised an investigation, but students decided to take it into their own hands.

On the night of the game, students coordinated a protest of the national anthem, wearing black shirts and raising their fists during the playing. (The teams and band were kept off the field for their safety.) Intermittently, they would go into coordinated chants.

Protest organizers kept authorities and administrators aware of their plans and negotiated with them, especially EMU President James Smith. Eventually, they were allowed to take the field:

(courtesy of CBS Sports Network)

They faced a loud chorus of boos from the assembled crowd at Rynearson Stadium, but sang Kendrick Lamar with raised fists defiantly (and peacefully) anyway.

Students also had the opportunity to talk about the events that had spurred the protest to a national audience that had assembled to catch the strange goings-on.

The protest caught eyes, not only because it was such a strange tactic, but because it was peaceful, well thought out and had the full backing of administrators, who defended the actions in a statement on Saturday:

CBS Sports Network treated the situation with proper gravity and filmed the protests while explaining the situations surrounding the protest and how it linked to a nationwide discussion.

The next week, players for Michigan and Michigan State knelt or raised fists during the playing of the anthem. Other players have also started lashing back at critics on Twitter at power programs such as Alabama, where players were told to “worry about getting some touches” when expressing their views on politics and Nebraska, where a regent placed pressure on school administrators to kick players off the team that protested the Anthem. (In Nebraska, it’s gotten to the point where players have been dealt death threats by fans, prompting the governor to meet with the players behind the protest.)

Clearly, the protest had some sort of impact. EMU has stepped up its investigation on the graffiti and college football players are now taking action to bring awareness to various issues that affect their everyday life.

It’s yet to be seen if there will be a definitive turning point to stem from the actions that these students took, but the tide is only rising for this sort of action.

One thing is for certain: awareness always eventually brings change, even if it is slow in coming.