By KATE POOR
Just over a year ago, a group of peaceful activists demonstrated outside of a St. Louis Rams game. Among the protesters, Tonja Bulley and her teenage daughter Brandy held an upside down American flag and called for justice for Michael Brown — the black high school graduate who was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The anguish and fury sparked by his murder mobilized racial justice advocates against the long-established discrimination and violence underpinning state control in Ferguson (and across the nation). Outside the Rams game in mid October, the Bulley women represented an activist group called Lost Voices, a local collective connected to the countrywide network of #BlackLivesMatter organizers through a shared commitment to subverting white supremacy and its legacy of racial stereotyping, subjugation of people of color and criminalizing black lives.
The aftermath of the Lost Voices protest typifies a micro-distillation of racial hegemony in the United States. Fans exiting the football game met the protest with disdain and hostility; in a later interview, Tonja Bulley recounts palpable rancor in onlookers’ disparaging commentary regarding the demonstration. The climate of intolerant reactions to anti-racism activism had heightened in the months following Michael Brown’s murder; just one week prior, 49 protesters had been arrested in a citywide demonstration that took place, in part, at the Rams stadium. The Bulley family and fellow activists stood staunchly despite the vitriolic retorts from white football fans; however, the peaceful protest escalated when a white man spat into Brandy Bulley’s face. Her mother later reported, “She was just saying ‘no justice, no peace,’ and he hog-[spat] and then smacked my baby. At that time ,there was no more being peaceful.” As Tonja rushed to defend her daughter, other football fans dashed to the defense of the white aggressor — hitting, punching, knocking down and throwing drinks on the Bulleys. Moments later, the police arrived and arrested both Tonja and Brandy. No other (read: white) people involved in the clash were arrested.
The criminalization of two nonviolent black activists, forced to defend themselves against unsought bellicosity, characterizes racial stereotyping and white supremacist violence — the very racist institutions that prompted the Bulleys to protest in the first place. As the officers arrested the black women outside the Rams stadium, they epitomized the institutionalization of racial profiling — a facet of the systemic racism that undergirds the nation’s historical and present-day power structures, perpetuates race-based police violence and facilitates the incarceration of nearly one million black Americans. None of the white instigators were taken into police custody; the police officers’ association of delinquency with the black women’s self-defense flagrantly contrasts the white spectators’ apparent freedom to perpetrate violence.
As history affirms, athletics offer a potent platform to advocate for social change. The widespread visibility and idolatry of athletes afford players unique positions through which to promote social justice causes. In the Rams’ stadium alone, five players stood in solidarity with racial justice activists through a demonstration of the “Hands up, don’t shoot” rallying cry while running on to the field and voiced support for the Ferguson protesters and Black Lives Matter movement in following interviews. Activists unfurled large banners with racial justice slogans in the St. Louis stadium — photographs of which subsequently became symbols of athletics’ role in destabilizing racism. The Lost Voices protest attempted to raise awareness and inspire action by situating their demonstration outside the stadium gates, where they could reach the flooding masses of football fans. The wide-reaching athletic community of the St. Louis Rams offered critical potential for subversive action and publicity.
Nonetheless, pervading racism that fosters bigotry within fan communities and sports media coverage fortifies a stadium culture that protects white fans’ “hooliganism” while criminalizing peaceful black protesters. As a point of comparison to the media defamation of Black Lives Matter activists, scholars often scrutinize the acceptance of white sports fans’ riotous, destructive and drunken revelries following big wins. The debauchery of inebriated sports fans wreaks havoc on campuses, private spaces and public centers over banal, superficial feats — in contrast with the heavy gravity motivating racial justice demonstrations. However, sports fans’ celebrations do not threaten to disrupt deeply entrenched racial hegemonies in the way that the Black Lives Matter movement urgently attempts to; uncomfortable with the potential dissolution of categories that bestow power on the socially privileged, media conglomerates and their corporate sports league partners maintain the one-sided, biased narratives. Zealous white sports fans receive a benevolent nod, a chuckle and a slap on the wrist; black activists are vilified as “rioters,” arrested and confronted with more violence, militarized opposition and disparaging media representations.
Reiterating monolithic conceptions of race and violence, media outlets sparsely covered the assault and arrest of Tonja and Brandy Bulley. Articles that mentioned the protest overlooked the complex terrain of race and gender power dynamics underlying the struggle. Reflecting many mainstream media narratives that dismiss and/or demonize protesters against police brutality, the story of Tonja and Brandy slipped into preordained, reusable molds that sensationalize black violence and expunge white accountability — a stale, carefully crafted narrative that bypasses crucial details and analyses in order to reinforce beneficial systems of privilege for (white, corporate) stakeholders. The lack of outrage over the attack and wrongful arrest speaks to a dominant silence in the mainstream media regarding violence against black women.
On Oct. 19, 2014, two black activists outside of Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri, were beaten to the ground, arrested and forgotten. The predominantly white, male football crowd who attacked them walked away free. As we get swept up in the exhilaration of the new NFL season, don’t forget the violence football fans perpetrated on Tonja and Brandy Bulley for speaking out against race-based police brutality. This season, will media conglomerates and fan communities continue to venerate athletes while demonizing Black rights activists; will sports media coverage outstrip and supersede the money, time and space allocated to coverage of anti-racism efforts? As the St. Louis protesters declared over a year ago, “Rams fans know, on and off the field, Black Lives Matter.” This year, will sports media producers recognize their exigent responsibility to realize this truth?
Kate Poor is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at [email protected]. Triple Jump appears alternate Mondays this semester.