STORM LAKE, Iowa -- In the wake of several students participating in an anthem protest at their homecoming football game, Buena Vista University has made a new rule that all athletes and cheerleaders must stand for the national anthem. One Buena Vista cheerleader has taken issue with this, and decided to quit the team instead of follow the rule.
“We kind of had a conversation and realized it's more important than us being scared or us being nervous about making a decision, and so on the homecoming game we decided to take a knee,” said Alyssa Parker.
It's a symbol of silent protest that so many others across the country have taken part in: kneeling for the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality against African Americans.
“I have family in the military, I understand what society thinks the American flag stands for, which is freedom and uniting the country together, but I just think back to that time when the American flag has never truly, for me personally, has never truly been for black Americans. I think that when the time when all that was happening, we weren’t even free. I just don’t think the flag has ever personally had the same meaning to me as it had to other people,” said the double psychology and criminal justice major.
Parker's demonstration brought considerable blowback on both her and her university.
“A lot of it is I should be expelled from school, I’m ungrateful, I’m not oppressed because I go to college. Somebody today said, ‘I hope you have fun working for McDonalds' and I’m going to have such a hard time when I get into the real world. I feel like I can laugh about it because, I’ve said before, those are not the type of people I’m ever going to reach, those are the type of people that are never going to listen to what I’m saying,” said Parker.
After meeting with the cheerleaders, players, and community members, the president of Buena Vista University, Dr. Joshua Merchant, made the decision to allow them to take a knee before the anthem, but require them to stand for it.
“We felt like the kneeling was confusing the conversation. We wanted to make sure that we built space and a platform for the students to really bring forward the concern that they were trying to raise, which is racial and social inequality. We wanted to make sure that they could really add dialogue to that, really bring perspectives to that, really build an understanding to that, so in the end we hope that they are really able to impact the change that they want to see in their nation,” said Jennifer Felton, Director of Marketing and Communications for the college.
Rather than accept this new rule, Parker decided to leave the team.
“I personally don’t feel like there is a compromise. When it comes to black lives and it comes to social injustice, there is no compromise,” she said.
As part of Parker's effort to create conversation on campus, she and President Merchant have held several forums and discussions on the issue, and Merchant has made it clear that he wants to encourage the conversation going forward.
“My ultimate thing, if I could have one thing, is just that people have empathy. You don’t have to agree with what I do, you really don’t even have to talk with me about it. If you have empathy, you can at least put yourself in my shoes to understand why I feel so strongly about it and why I wanna do it, and if I can also put myself in your shoes of why you’re upset and why you don’t like what I do, then we can better understand each other and have constructive conversations. You can go your way and I can go mine, but then when you have a conversation with someone else, and I do, we can carry our conversation that we just had on to others,” said Parker.
Parker feels like being forced to stand for the anthem is another step in a long history of the general population of the country not being okay with black Americans protesting.
“Colin Kaepernick creates a peaceful way to protest, a peaceful platform for black people all around the world to do it, for small town Iowa to do it, and people still don’t like it, you know, no one likes protest,” said Parker.
A Washington Post article published earlier in the year showed in 1961, 61% of Americans did not agree with the Freedom Riders and their protest for civil rights.
In a statement to the school, President Merchant wrote, in part:
"Emotions, opinions and tensions are high – and legitimately so. It is understandable that each individual has deeply rooted beliefs and experiences that shape our opinions and actions. Our campus has been a microcosm for what is currently happening in our nation and it is our responsibility as a university to deepen the conversation for the better. The very nature of a protest is to cause disruption, yet it is the choices that are made after that disruption that are of significant importance and have the potential to shape the future in positive ways. To our students who protested… you were not only noticed, but you were heard.
"Throughout the past week I have met with our athletes, as well as numerous students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members to listen and talk. I found the conversations to be thought provoking yet enlightening. Yes, we did not always agree, but we respectfully listened to one another’s thoughts and perspectives. With each conversation, I digested comments, suggestions, and opinions. Reaching a clear path forward is not easy, however working in collaboration with the campus community has brought some clarity. I do believe we have found an alternative solution to move forward. Thank you for your patience as we underwent this important process… one of talking, sharing and reflecting. The process was constructive and I stand behind the solution.
"Moving forward, BVU student athletes and cheerleaders will stand for the national anthem as a unified team. However, student athletes and cheerleaders will be allowed to kneel before the anthem if they choose. As we all stand to honor our national anthem, I have promised to physically stand by their side as a demonstration of support for their desire to impact social change and I commend them for their courage. BVU, nor our student athletes, meant any disrespect for the national anthem or the flag. Many of you found the action upsetting, therefore, please accept my sincere apology.
"A key component to our solution, and in the spirit of Education for Service, I will provide financial support to advance the topic of social change. Over the next few weeks we will be working directly with students, faculty and staff to plan several campus gatherings that will create an open discourse that is meaningful and purposeful. Our events will be mediated so all voices can be heard and the environment is one in which it is comfortable to share perspectives. Details are forthcoming."