At a Kennesaw State University football game in Atlanta, Georgia, in late September five cheerleaders took a knee during the National Anthem. They would later become known as the Kennesaw Five, scared but motivated by so many important reasons to exercise their right to protest—a right that would not be shut down by the community, despite their reactions.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” says Michaelyn Wright, one of the Kennesaw Five, VICE Sports reports. “I was shaking.”
The four other young women, Tommia Dean, Taylor Mclver, Kennedy Town, and Shlondra Young, along with Wright, had all talked with their parents prior to the protest, considering the potential backlash and negative reactions they could face. However, their diverse reasoning for protesting outweighed any sort of consequence the Five could be subjected to.
A majority of the girls had specific incidents of police brutality against people of color in mind, the same reason why ex-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began protesting by taking a knee last year. Alton Sterling, a black man who was held down and fatally shot by two white police officers, moved Tommia Dean to take action.
“I just don’t think people deserve to die like that. I have watched all these events and they touch me,” says Dean, according to VICE Sports. “Alton Sterling was killed in my home state of Louisiana. That was close.”
Kennedy Town was motivated by an incident captured on a dashcam in their county where a Cobb County police officer joked with a scared white woman he had pulled over, assuring her that she would be okay. “But you’re not black. Remember, we only kill black people. Yeah, we only kill black people, right?” the officer was caught saying on camera.
“We go to school in Cobb County and this is where a white cop said we only shoot black people,” said Town. “That told me I have to do something in Cobb County to make a change.”
On the day of September 30th, Shlondra Young took her message to Facebook, accompanied with a video of their protest.
“Today, I kneel for equality, I kneel for social injustice and I kneel for those who unjustly lost their lives and are no longer here to kneel for themselves. I kneel in a city where a confederate culture still exists among some and issues such as this are often placed on the back burner. I kneel in a city where I am a minority. But most importantly, I kneel for unity in a country that needs it the most right now. ‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you, he will never leave or forsake you.’ (Deuteronomy 31:6) #TaketheKnee”
“I know if I was a parent and that happened to my child I would be highly upset,” she said. “Even though I am not, I can feel that pain. That’s not the way you should lose a child, or someone should die. That’s why it speaks to my heart.”
Since the initial protest, the Kennesaw Five have been met with both support and backlash. While the football team’s head coach and the cheerleading coach choose to remain silent on the issue, VICE reports, the five women have received support from their fellow cheerleaders. The entire squad was made to wait in the tunnels that enter the field during the anthem at football games since their first protest, where the five cheerleaders have continued to take a knee, according to VICE.
While the Five have been bombarded with news interviews, social media comments crying disrespect for the flag and country, and pressure to keep them off the field, they’ve also been recognized by those who also feel these incidents close to home. VICE reports that the five women were given plaques from the families of victims of police violence, including Sybrina Fulton, who lost her son Trayvon Martin in 2012 when he was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer.
“She gave us all one, and the love we have seen blows my mind sometimes,” says Taylor McIver. “To receive this plaque from a mother in the movement is an amazing gift and I will cherish it forever.”
The young women have also received positive feedback from veterans, praising the ladies for exercising their freedom.
“I would do it all over again,” says Wright. “While I wasn’t expecting this reaction, we wouldn’t be having this conversation without this action.”