Four and a half minutes elapsed as junior Ariyana Smith knelt and then lay down on Dr. Lee McKinney Court at Fontbonne University.
“Not that it was a blur, just in a lot of ways indescribable, in a lot of ways just very visceral if that makes sense. Not so much thoughts but a lot of feelings, a lot of emotional clarity,” Smith said.
As a live rendition of the national anthem rang in the background, players and coaches prepared for the game. Smith lay silent in front of the flag.
“Doing warm ups and whatnot, that’s supposed to be a time where we energize ourselves, where we get fired up. To me I felt like I was at a memorial site, I felt like this was for me a place where there was no way I could get excited, there was no way I could get happy and perform in the way I was expected to. I was in my head just reflecting on what all of this meant to me,” Smith said.
During her demonstration she thought about the historical conditions that led to the moment.
“I wasn’t taking in my surroundings very much; all I knew was that I had to take off my jersey, put my hands up and knelt [sic] under the flag. For a long time I looked up at the flag, just thinking, what is the history of this country? Why do I have to be here right now?”
Those around her continued their business. In the video taken of the event head women’s basketball Head Coach Emily Cline convenes the team at midcourt while her player continues to lie on the ground.
“I think one of the things that I mostly noticed was that the singer slowed down on those last two lines of the anthem,” Smith said.
After the demonstration Smith went to the locker room and waited for the game to end. She was not met with the support of her team.
“After the game my coach … Emily Cline wouldn’t look at me, David Elliott … glancing at me then looking away, my teammates wouldn’t meet my eyes,” Smith said. “We went and had dinner minus people weren’t talking to me for the most part.”
The next morning, 15 minutes before practice was set to start, Smith met with Cline and Senior Women’s Administrator Lexi Vernon and Athletics Director Chad Eisele during which she was told that the standard suspension for a player leaving the game is an indefinite suspension.
Smith was frustrated, as were her supporters, with the college’s initial response of suspension.
Smith has since spoken to TKS about the motivations behind the protest. Though much discussion has occurred concerning the protest and the resulting suspension, the motives have since been lost.
“I was glad that it was getting attention so that we could go back and say ‘Hey what were the root causes of this?’ That’s what I want the focus to be on. My intention was not to have the attention on me. The original intent was to draw attention to these national conversations about race, racism and discrimination in our country,” Smith said.
“It’s pretty sad that collectively we are more concerned with pretending like everything is OK rather than actually making sure that everything is OK. We get more upset over a demonstration than we get over the event that actually sparked all of these protests.”
Knox College was stirred at the start of winter break. Smith protested prior to her game on Nov. 29 at Fontbonne University in Clayton, Miss., and the same town that gained national notoriety for the Michael Brown verdict was now the center of attention for the Knox community.
On Nov. 30 Smith was suspended from the basketball team.
On Dec.1 a video was posted on YouTube by then senior Allie Fry of Smith’s protest. She knelt before the flag during the national anthem, was approached by her coaches and trainers and then stood up. The video ends as Smith walked toward the locker room.
From there the story grew legs of its own. Picked up by Buzzfeed on Dec. 2, there was an outcry of comments on both sides of the argument. Open forums were held the next day. Eisele wrote an open letter Dec. 8 shedding light on the initial decision to suspend Smith while announcing that the suspension had been lifted.
Smith’s motivation was spurred long before the demonstration.
She aimed to fight what she perceives as a “culture of silence” at the college and “issues within the Athletic Department pertaining to race, gender, sex and sexuality, discrimination and bias.”
Smith cites fall term as the time during which she felt as if a dialogue needed to be opened.
“This is the environment I was in: where anytime I raised concerns or I sensed that something was off I didn’t feel like I could speak up and say ‘Hey this is wrong,’ or when I did send out an email to everyone it was met with silence,” Smith said.
The email Smith referenced was one she sent to over 60 players, coaches and Athletic Department administrators Oct. 10, in which she detailed reasons she would not participate in Athletic Department activities held during Homecoming.
Eisele wrote a response to the email indicating that the concerns would be addressed.
“Ariyana has raised some important issues, and it is important that you all know that the Knox Athletics Department is deeply committed to evaluating and addressing these concerns and to working with SAAC and other student groups, including the Diversity Committee of Student Senate, to identify ways in which we can continue to make improvements. That said, we need to understand more about the specific issues raised in Ariyana’s email and, to accomplish that, would like to meet with Ariyana and others who share her concerns,” according to the email.
Through the email Smith attempted to foster discussion.
“What I was trying to convey in that email was that there are a lot of things going wrong here and we need to talk about it. We can’t be silent around these issues. We need to start having honest conversations around things like Title IX and what that means, what it means to be respectful of all athletes here,” Smith said.
When asked whether open discussions may have pre-empted the need for the demonstration at Fontbonne University, she agreed. However, she received no feedback from her emails.
“Absolutely. There weren’t even conversations amongst my teammates about the email that was sent out. There were not conversations between my coaches and I about the email that was sent out,” Smith said.
Smith said that prior to the game in Clayton, Eisele reached out to the women’s basketball team indicating that talks were in progress with the Athletic Department of Fontbonne University concerning the location of the game. At the time of this meeting, which Smith placed at a week and a half before the game, it was unclear whether the game would be held in Clayton, at Knox or at a neutral site.
Smith hoped the meeting would lead to a greater discussion of the events that transpired in St. Louis that would cause concern for the safety of the team.
“Good, at least we’re going to have a conversation about what’s going on in Ferguson or what the climate is in Missouri right now so we’re not walking in blind,” Smith said.
But no further discussions were held.
Upon her suspension Smith was bombarded with press requests. She says that the majority of the feedback she received concerning the demonstration was positive.
Additionally, nearly 50 faculty endorsed the following statement: “We, the undersigned faculty, write to express how proud we are of Ariyana Smith’s recent protest in Clayton, Missouri. Her actions are in the best tradition of Knox College and reflect the critical thinking and engagement we promote in a Knox education.”
Ultimately the decision to protest was a necessary one in Smith’s eyes.
“I knew that I had to make that sacrifice, I had to make that public statement because I had to go to sleep. I had to sleep with a sound conscience. I couldn’t walk into that gymnasium knowing what I knew and not pay tribute to the people who were fighting for black life, who were fighting for justice, who were fighting for at least the vocalized values of this country.”