US teen athletes join NFL stars in kneeling against racism | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 28.10.2017
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US teen athletes join NFL stars in kneeling against racism

Though President Donald Trump has blasted NFL players for kneeling during the US anthem, the anti-racism protests are spreading to colleges and beyond. DW's Rachel Stewart asked a high school athlete why he takes a knee.

As the crowd rose shortly before kickoff for a recent football game at Niskayuna High School in the state of New York and the first strains of the US's national anthem were played, Ismail Stewart, the Silver Warriors' 16-year-old wide receiver, dropped down onto one knee.

"My heart was pounding," Stewart told DW. "I felt like I was going to pass out. I was like: Wow, I'm really about to do this. Because once I do, a lot of stuff is going to change — a lot of relationships are going to change."

When he turned around and saw several of his teammates and one cheerleader also kneeling, he knew he had done the right thing.

"I thought: 'I'm not in this alone. I have people by my side,'" he said.

Read more:Opinion: Hertha Berlin's gesture is about the message

'Jokes and insensitivities'

Stewart said he was inspired by a series of protests that have shaken up the US's National Football League (NFL). This form of demonstration began in 2016, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick protested police brutality against African-Americans by refusing to stand for the national anthem before games. He began taking a knee after the retired NFL player and Army Special Forces veteran Nate Boyer advised him that it would be more respectful than remaining seated.

US President Donald Trump attempted to use the protests to stir up support for a Republican candidate for Senate at a campaign rally in Alabama on September 22. "Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say: 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!' he told the crowd.

Trump’s words proved to be a catalyst for expanding the protests, with more and more players from different teams choosing to participate. Now the protests are spreading from the NFL to high schools and colleges around the country.

Stewart, whose father is black and mother is white, said he witnessed the symptoms of the US's racial inequality every day, from black friends whose fathers have been jailed for minor offenses to ethnic slurs being thrown around on the football field. The final straw for him before deciding to "take a knee" was having to break up a fight at school between a black student and a white student. The argument had begun over a "racial joke."

"I went home and really reflected on the issue," he said. "In this day and age, in 2017, why are we still dealing with jokes and insensitivities to different races?"

Hertha Berlin 'take a knee' before game in solidarity with NFL players

USA: Ismail Stewart

Stewart said his peers and community had largely supported his decision to kneel

Sign of disrespect?

As the protest has gained traction and media attention, many people, from football fans to politicians, have accused the players of disrespecting the national anthem, the US flag and — perhaps most controversially of all — the military.

Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernic take a kneee during a football game

The demonstration was started by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick (right), who knelt to protest police violence against African-Americans

Stewart is quick to challenge this argument. His mother served in the Marines, and he said she was the first person he went to when he was considering taking a knee at the game.

"I asked her if she would feel disrespected," Stewart said. "She told me no. People kneel in the presence of kings and queens. People kneel when they want to propose. People kneel at military funerals."

Read more: US scientists take a knee to protest racism

Political football

The decision to take part in the protest has attracted some negative attention on social media. "Everyone has guts online," he said. "I saw that coming, so I didn’t really react."

Stewart said he was more surprised by the largely positive reaction he has received from his peers and neighbors: "It was awesome getting all that support. I had teachers from my old schools come up to me, shake my hand or give me a hug, and tell me they were proud of me."

One of the criticisms that Trump and others have leveled at NFL players is that they are paid handsome salaries in order to entertain sports fans — not to to be activists. Stewart doesn't see much basis to that.

"They're trendsetters," he said. "People look up to them: that mass audience, all those fans, all those followers. You can use that to send the right message and hopefully gain even more respect. Because then you're not just a superstar: You're a hero.”

For Stewart, taking part by taking a knee has been an eye-opening experience.

"I feel like something in me kind of clicked," he said. "A year ago I would never have seen myself in this position, but I've never felt anything like this before. I definitely want to keep speaking out."

For the moment, he said, he is enjoying his small part in this larger movement.

"It doesn't matter what position in society you have," he said. "If you have a voice, use it."

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