CARBONDALE — Members of Carbondale’s Racial Justice Coalition and Race Unity Group gathered outside the Southern Illinois University Arena before the final men’s basketball home game of the season Wednesday in a show of support for the three Saluki cheerleaders who took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality.
Holding signs with messages like “Peaceful Protest is Patriotic” and “Our Cheerleaders Still Live in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave,” a group of about a dozen people greeted fans as they arrived for the game.
Karen Knodt, a member of both groups, said she and others chose to organize the event after observing the backlash that followed the protests of Ariahn Hunt, Czarina Tinker and Alaysia Brandy — all sophomores at SIUC — in fall 2017.
“We were very concerned about them as three young women and three students, and how were they doing, and how we could make a witness to say, hey, there are a lot of us here in Carbondale that support what they’re doing, for their courage as a national and as a local effort,” Knodt said. “I used to be a campus pastor and worked really hard to get kids to be passionate about things, so when anybody is, I want to support it.”
Ella Lacey, who belongs to the Racial Justice Coalition, Race Unity Group and Carbondale Branch NAACP, said the event was a way to show the groups’ appreciation. In January, the Carbondale Branch NAACP recognized the three young women at its annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast.
“It’s really admirable that they are willing to take the step to protest,” Lacey said.
A few weeks after the cheerleaders first began protesting at football, basketball and volleyball games, the SIU Athletics Department made a change in pregame protocol that removed the Spirit Squad from the field and court during the anthem.
Knodt said both groups had written to SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno offering advice on how to facilitate dialogue around issues of racial injustice, but never received a response.
“I would think it would behoove the university to encourage dialogue and to teach students cultural competency — how do we live in a world where there are racial tensions and where there’s a multiplicity of feelings about these issues? So we would hope there would be some dialogue, and especially for an institution of higher education to try and stifle that kind of learning and dialogue and diversity of opinion is most unfortunate,” Knodt said.
Scott Martin, a member of both groups, said several passersby had stopped to express support.
“It takes a lot of guts, and whether you agree with them or not, folks ought to respect someone who is brave enough to stand for a cause that they believe in,” Martin said.
Cathy Field, a co-facilitator with the Racial Justice Coalition, called the cheerleaders’ protest “citizenship at its purest.”
“I think something that we’ve learned this week — that perhaps we’ve had a sense of before, but especially now — is how much we need the moral authority of the young people. I mean, you saw what happened in Parkland, Florida, and how those youngsters are mobilizing on an issue that we had all given up on years ago. … These cheerleaders represent that same kind of youthful energy and promise, and it’s invigorating to see. They are not compromised, they are not compromising, which makes the grownups uncomfortable … but it needs to be said,” Field said.
Knodt said she would like to see protests of racial injustice take on a new form in the coming months.
“I thought (kneeling during the anthem) was just a brilliant, quiet, humble peaceful way to express this, and it’s gotten very misunderstood. I mean, if need be next year, if it happens again and we need to show our support, we’d be glad to, but I imagine the dialogue will go into a different direction,” Knodt said.