Militant Journalism

Manatee students fight to ‘take a knee’ as national movement grows

Devan Cheaves, who grew up in Manatee County, speaks to students on behalf of ACLU: “Don’t forget, if you get disciplined in any way, come see me.”

For a month now, students in Manatee County have organized against the Manatee County School District’s policy of forcing students to stand for the pledge of allegiance and national anthem. They have protested outside the school board administration building, spoken out at a packed school board meeting and called and emailed school board members.

On Sept. 26, District Supervisor of Athletics Jason Montgomery sent out an email to school athletic directors stating that they should not allow student athletes to protest the national anthem unless they receive permission from their parents. District Superintendent Diana Greene defended the policy telling the Bradenton Herald that parents must put in writing “a specific reason why their student would not stand.”

Credit: NCF Catalyst

In response, Bayshore High freshman Mercury Clarke and Manatee High senior Leah Tiberini called a protest at the School Board building. On October 3, twenty people including parents, students and community supporters, stood in front of the building on the side of Manatee Ave, chanting and holding signs. Their signs said “Take a knee, Manatee!” and “United against racism!”

Tinker vs. Des Moines … It’s already proved that constitutional rights don’t stop at the school gates. It’s been such an eye-opener that we could be punished for kneeling at a game,” said Kalli Johnson, a junior and cross-country runner at Braden River High. “I think Colin Kaepernick’s protest was extremely brave, to use that kind of platform, to be able to reach that many people.”

Manatee’s current policy requiring students to ask permission from their parents runs counter to 80 years of constitutional law, including West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette in 1943 and Tinker v. Des Moines in 1968. The permission requirement is a temporary loophole designed to restrict students’ First Amendment rights and create a chilling effect on the expression of dissent.

Racism in schools is another driving force behind the protests. Black students in Manatee schools are suspended three times as often as whites. Meanwhile, Black youth make up 14 percent of the county’s population but approximately 30 percent of youth arrests. The school-to-prison pipeline forces Black students out of the education system and into the prison system.

“It’s a protest against systemic racism in our country and I think it’s really important that our students be allowed to express their frustration in peaceful ways,” said Ezra Katz, a New College of Florida student whose mother is Jewish and whose father is Muslim. “I feel like it’s ridiculous that this county is not allowing students to protest when Nazis are allowed to protest in the streets.”

“Despite the fact that I just came from a lab and these guys have classes and midterms and stuff like that, we’re still here because we understand that this is a life or death issue, these are freedoms being threatened frequently and consistently,” said Dajé Austrie, a member of Million Hoodies, West Florida Chapter, who came with three other members.

Last year, when white students at Manatee High School brought a Confederate flag to Spirit Week and called students of color racial slurs, Manatee schools erupted into protest. Students at Manatee High School, Palmetto High School and other schools wore all black and gathered at their schools, while police vehicles circled the schools. Manatee students also took part in the recent protest that brought down the Manatee County courthouse’s 93-year-old Confederate monument.

ANSWER organizer Ruth Beltran addresses the school board. Her son is a student in Manatee County.

On October 10, students organized a speak out at the school board meeting. During the pledge of allegiance, they remained sitting. Several students, parents and community activists gave powerful speeches demanding an end to the school district’s repression of dissent and to racism within the school system.

“What are you doing to serve your Black and brown students? Because whatever you’re doing, it’s not working. Black and brown Manatee County students face struggles on so many fronts and now the schools are trying to stifle even their ability to speak out about these injustices,” community organizer Hal Trejo told school board members.

Mercury Clarke, a member of Party for Socialism and Liberation, also addressed the school board: “You cannot force me to respect a country that does not respect me. You cannot force me to respect a country that does not respect the Black community, sex workers, the transgender community, the gay community, Indigenous people, the brown community, the Muslim community and more. You cannot force me to respect a country that is imperialist and capitalist. You cannot.”

“Constantly I see examples of the issues I take a knee for,” said Lakewood Ranch student Brendan Mendel, who has refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance since Colin Kaepernick began sitting in August of last year. “When for-profit charter schools become segregated because of their ability to cherry-pick students to admit, or when students walk or drive onto my high school campus with Confederate flags on their clothing or vehicles, or when teachers cannot make copies of assignments for students who may not have access to a printer, or when veterans are on the streets due to lack of affordable housing, and when an increasingly common trend of killing of an unarmed person of color occurs, I take a knee to oppose these issues.”

After students and their supporters spoke, School Board Chair Charlie Kennedy stated that school board members would need to take a second look at the policy. According to Kennedy, the school board adopted the rule during the summer of this year. Manatee’s student code of conduct now codifies the Florida statute on “patriotic programs,” including the parent permission restriction.

Defending the policy, school board attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum cited Cameron Frazier v. Cynthia Alexandre et al, a 2008 ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. In the case, the court upheld an earlier District Court decision preventing a Palm Beach County school from requiring a student to stand for the pledge of allegiance. However, according to the ACLU, “the court left the door open for additional lawsuits by refusing to rule on the statute as it applies across the board to all students.”

The scathing dissent in Cameron Frazier v. Cynthia Alexandre et al., explains why the Florida statute violates students’ rights: “Such a permission requirement is patently unconstitutional and this opinion puts us at odds, not only with direct Supreme Court precedent, but with the decisions of other circuits addressing similar statutes… The State is required to respect and uphold the constitutional rights of minors, which cannot be ignored regardless of whether a parent might disagree with the exercise of those rights.”

Moreover, as Kennedy made clear to the board’s attorney, Manatee County School Board does not have to force students to stand. According to the statute, “Each district school board may [emphasis added] adopt rules to require … programs of a patriotic nature.” In other words, not only does the Florida statute violate the rights of students and stifle dissent; the school board is actively choosing to use the statute to repress its students’ right to free expression.

On Oct. 20, students held a call-in day to the school board. Students, parents and community members sent emails to school board members and left voice messages demanding a change to the policy.

Manatee students continue to build their campaign locally, inspired by the ongoing protests of other high school and college students, as well as professional athletes, around the country. A number of #TakeAKnee protests have occurred in recent weeks.

Recently, at Kennesaw State University in Marietta, Ga., five cheerleaders continued to take a knee at homecoming events after administration banned them from the field during the anthem a few weeks ago, while in Minneapolis several dozen protesters took a knee outside the U.S. Bank Stadium before the Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings game. In Jacksonville, Fla., 150 University of North Florida students recently attended a “Take A Knee UNF” rally against racist policy brutality and for greater diversity and equality on campus.

Friday night saw more protests around the country. In Nevada, several dozen students at University of Nevada, Reno kneeled as part of a rally on campus, where last month a campus police officer was caught on video joking about shooting a Black student. In Monroe Township, N.J., two referees stormed off the field and were replaced when four students from Monroe High School took a knee before their game against Colts Neck. In Portland, Ore., over 60 students, including four football players who consistently kneel, protested the national anthem and held signs saying “Racial Justice Now.”

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