SCHENECTADY — As Naylah Williams, a cheerleader at Niskayuna High School, prepared to kneel during the national anthem for the second time during the school’s football season, she was told there were Confederate flags flying in the parking lot – an attempt to intimidate her.
She knelt anyway.
“I respect everyone’s right to say what they want to say even if I think it’s disrespectful, but they have to respect my right to not agree with them,” Williams said during a panel discussion about free speech hosted Thursday night at Schenectady High School.
Williams, who joined a handful of Niskayuna football players in the kneeling demonstration, first took a knee during the national anthem before a late-September game against Guilderland. Williams and the players said they held the silent protest as a way to raise concerns over racial injustice and to generate local discussion on the issue.
“I showed people what my rights were,” she said. “I used it in a way that is more powerful than words — that gave rise to a conversation that we needed to have.”
At Thursday’s event, Williams was joined by football players Reggie Melvin and Cole Pipa, who also knelt during the national anthem. They said the reaction to their protest dwarfed what they had expected. On social media, people debated, some arguing it was disrespectful to the flag and veterans while others defended the high schoolers for carrying forward a tradition of non-violent protest. Some comments included threats against the student protesters.
“It certainly worked well at gaining attention,” Pipa said Thursday. The students said classmates approached them at school and asked about what they were trying to accomplish, giving them a chance to engage in a discussion about racial issues. But others simply rejected the protest.
Online the discussions veered even further from a substantive debate over racial policies.
“There is a tendency for discussion on the internet to devolve into shouting matches, particularly when someone who doesn’t want the conversation to take place shows up,” Pipa said.
Weighing all sides of the reaction, the students appeared satisfied with the response their protest generated and felt empowered by their ability to spark a debate – even if not solely on the issue they were trying to highlight.
And they said local action is more important than similar protests at NFL games that have gotten national coverage. They said people are more likely to respond to a protest if they see people they know carrying out the protest, and they are more likely to seek more information on the topic as a result.
“People have to really understand that this is an issue that is still going on today,” Melvin said of racial injustice. “At the local level, it’s more important to express yourself; it’s more personal. People you know are watching.”