Activists plan kneeling protest outside Steelers game

September 15, 2018
Organizers and activists meet to plan a protest outside of the Steelers preseason game inside of Pittsburgh Mennonite Church in Swissvale on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018.

While the NFL mulls what to do about its national anthem policy, a group of activists plan to take their own knees in the name of social justice Saturday as fans pack into Heinz Field for the Pittsburgh Steelers preseason game.

“If the players can’t kneel, we can kneel for them,” said Tracy Baton, 55, of Pittsburgh’s Park Place neighborhood, the event’s organizer and director of Women’s March Pittsburgh.

Advocates affiliated with the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter movements have obtained permits to lead peaceful protests not only at the Steelers’ two home preseason games, but also every home game of the season.

Baton said she wants fans to know the protest is not intended to be anti-player, anti-NFL nor anti-American -- but rather to promote social justice needs and priorities, such as voter engagement and police accountability.

“Many of us will be there because we’re Steelers’ fans,” said Baton, a licensed social worker with Community Empowerment Association, a children’s services provider based in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood. “As Americans, nonviolent peaceful protest is our birthright. It is being an American, it is being a citizen -- taking a knee in a nonviolent way to call attention to how we can be better to each other and for each other.”

The inaugural “Stand for Justice/Kneel for those who cannot” protest is set to begin near the stadium at the corner of Art Rooney Avenue and North Shore Drive at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, shortly before the Steelers take on the Tennessee Titans in their first preseason home game of the season.

The protest will start with an invocation and a few speakers, followed by activists taking a knee when “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays shortly before the 4 p.m. kickoff.

If enough people participate, they’d like to form a ring of people kneeling around the stadium.

More than 400 people say they are going or have interest in going on the event’s Facebook page.

Baton emphasized they are not planning to block access to the game. They plan to remain on the city-owned sidewalks around Heinz Field.

The kneeling movement, which started with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, began as a protest against police brutality and racial inequality. Several players have said while kneeling during the anthem they were praying for America and eradicating injustices confronting blacks and other minorities.

“The biggest challenge I have is explaining to people that Black Lives Matter isn’t a group, it’s a movement,” Baton said. “It’s not that I’m promoting a group, I’m promoting an idea: that all Americans need justice, that justice needs to go to each and every one of us, including poor black boys. Justice is a system that needs to work for all colors, and when black communities are safer, all communities are safer.”

The furor stirred by NFL players choosing to protest during the national anthem -- exacerbated by President Trump’s ensuing vitriol and barrage of social media attacks -- has put all types of people at odds this past week in stadiums, sports bars and living rooms across America.

“One of the criticisms is often, ‘Why aren’t you demanding this or changing that or trying to make stricter rules’ -- that is what is happening,” said Morgan Hawkins, 32, a graphic designer from Swissvale and one of the organizers for Saturday’s kneeling protest in Pittsburgh.

“We are not just kneeling on the street and then going home and hoping for the best,” she said. “We are also registering people to vote, we are getting these local elections mobilized, we’re knocking on doors.”

Hawkins likened those who argue there’s has no place in football for activism to some of the same people who opposed to peaceful protests during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

“They used to say, ‘Why do they have to protest at my diner? Why are they hurting the bus system?’ and now it’s, ‘Why do they have to march across my bridge that I have to use to get to work?’ And that’s the wrong thing to focus on,” Hawkins said. “There’s a greater point to be made, and that’s the way that action happens, is by disrupting people’s lives so that they start paying attention.”

In May, the NFL and its owners agreed to a new policy prohibiting players from kneeling during the national anthem but allowing them to remain in the locker room.

The change, which would have resulted in fines for athletes who did not comply, was shelved less than two months later amid objections by the NFL Players Association, with both sides working on a compromise.

President Trump again attacked NFL players who choose to kneel during the anthem during a rally in West Virginia on Tuesday.

“What’s going to make the change is when white people, who feel inconvenienced because traffic is stopped, stop to take a look at why traffic is stopped, and really search their hearts and ask if justice is colorblind as it’s supposed to be in America,” said Karen Hochberg, 61, who is white, a protest organizer and resident of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. “There are Democrats, Republicans, white and black, who will kneel Saturday. That makes us all Americans. If you want to divide us, you are not a leader.”

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