The NFL, as America’s favorite entertainment, is at the forefront of many societal issues. In Week 13, the Rams Hands Up protest drew the ire of the St. Louis Police, who erroneously interpreted Kevin Demhoff’s statement as an apology.
On Sunday, five St. Louis Rams players ‒ Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Kenny Britt, Jared Cook and Chris Givens ‒ joined the chorus of Americans protesting the inequality of police actions by coming onto the field with their “Hands Up”. A symbolic show of solidarity, the NFL players, like many athletes before them, took advantage of their opportunity to make a statement.
Equality, “the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities”, has spent most of 2014 occupying the state of Missouri. Michael Sam, the first openly gay college football player, attended the University of Missouri. Drafted by the St. Louis Rams, he was given the opportunity to make the team and missed out because he was not good enough, not because of who he was off the field.
On August 9, 2014, questions of equality were at the heart of the matter when Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed after a robbery by Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson. Brown, an African-American, was killed by Wilson, a Caucasian, resulting in a (literal) firestorm over the excessive use of force by (predominantly) white police officers against young, black men.
Ferguson burned. The community was outraged, first over the circumstances involved with Brown’s shooting and then over the disrespectful, tone-deaf escalation of tensions by the inept Ferguson police leadership. Brown’s body was left in the street for hours; community protests were met with jackbooted thugs in urban assault vehicles aiming their loaded weapons at journalists and citizens alike. For several weeks, Ferguson was a powder keg, filled with an angry community and a police force that seemed more interested in intimidation than protection.
Against this backdrop, the young men of the St. Louis Rams had demonstrated the concept of equality every day at practice with teammate Michael Sam. Like the rest of America, they saw the images from the nearby suburb of Ferguson: the tear gas, the fires, the body-armored cops, and the citizens with their “Hands Up”.
In the wake of the decision to not charge Wilson with a crime in the shooting of Brown, protests have not been confined to Ferguson; Oakland, New York, and thousands of other cities and towns have held (largely) peaceful protests. The issue of equality remains at the center; cops in urban assault vehicles weren’t deployed in Keene, New Hampshire, on Halloween night when a riot broke out. Nor are cops in body armor aiming their weapons at the various “celebrations” associated with sports wins (or losses) where cars are lit on fire and property damaged.
Why was Ferguson ‒ and its predominantly African-American residents ‒ treated unequally when protesting the death of a young man?
After the Rams hands up protest, St. Louis area police ‒ as they have at almost every turn over the past five months ‒ overreacted. “I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights. Well I’ve got news for people who think that way, cops have first amendment [sic] rights too, and we plan to exercise ours. I’d remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser’s [sic] products. It’s cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do,” said Jeff Roorda, the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
To be sure, police officers have a difficult, dangerous job. The vast majority of them are responsible, compassionate individuals committed to public safety. But Roorda has again painted the police as reactionary thugs with a wildly inappropriate sense of equality. First, by using “thugs” – a word chosen only when you want to demean and insult the intended target. Second, by fundamentally misunderstanding the First Amendment and the concept of equality.
Unfortunately, this put Kevin Demhoff, Rams Chief Operating Officer, in a no-win situation. Roorda’s demands, because of his privileged position, had to be answered and Demhoff contacted the St. Louis Police Chief, Jon Belmar, to “express … that I felt badly that our players’ support of the community was taken as disrespectful to law enforcement. In none of these conversations did I apologize for our players’ actions. I did say in each conversation that I regretted any offense their officers may have taken. We do believe it is possible to both support our players’ First Amendment rights and support the efforts of local law enforcement as our community begins the process of healing.”
Unfortunately, this is not how the St. Louis police leaders interpreted Demhoff’s comments, with Belmar and Roorda claiming he had “apologized for the … “Hands Up” gesture” in an email to their staff.
The St. Louis, Missouri area police departments have not had an easy few months. Most officers are not to blame for the actions of their leadership. However, that their leadership is playing semantic games and casting a menacing eye at professional athletes for participating in a protest that is about far more than the shooting of Michael Brown shows that police leadership hasn’t learned a thing about equality.
It is a shame that the St. Louis police leadership are focused on stamping out symbolic gestures they created with their unacceptable and menacing tactics in Ferguson. Their behavior simply illustrates how dangerously out of touch with reality they are.
Mr. Roorda, Chief Balmer…this is why the “Hands Up” protest exists:
Actions have consequences. The reputation you earned is the result of intimidating peaceful protesters with military grade weaponry. Again, this is why “Hands Up” exists. Americans of all colors ‒ including most in blue ‒ are waiting for your apology for making “Hands Up” a horrifying example of how equality is still very much under attack in Missouri.
Follow David on Twitter @SoSH_davemc.