Today was like any other day, and we could all go about our business. Unfortunately, even doing that could be a death sentence for black Americans.
“Buying skittles in a hoodie was a death sentence for Trayvon Martin. Jogging through his own neighborhood was a death sentence for Ahmaud Arbery. Selling CD’s was a death sentence for Alton Sterling. Walking home was a death sentence for Mike Brown. Sleeping in her own home, with her own family like we do every night, was a death sentence for Breonna Taylor,” Vanessa Watson, sophomore at the University of Tennessee, said.
Watson spoke these words to a crowd of masked students, staff and concerned citizens today as they kicked off the March on UT Knoxville. The event, named for the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, saw hundreds stand in solidarity against systemic racism and police brutality.
It has been five months since Brett Hankison, Jon Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove killed Breonna Taylor. It has been three months since former Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd via asphyxiation, launching a new wave of protest against police brutality.
Vanessa Watson and Mariah Smith, UT’s first black golfer, first thought of the march after Floyd’s murder. They, alongside senior sports management major and UT footballer Trey Smith, organized and led the event, marching from UT’s Torchbearer statue to Ayres Hall on UT’s Hill.
“After the murder of George Floyd, I had the idea of starting a march. Vanessa reached out to me and let me know she also had the idea,” Mariah Smith said. “At that point, we combined efforts and started organizing together."
The march comes six days after Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old black man, was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This event led many professional American athletes to cease playing in protest.
Saturday’s march was another such protest, as multiple UT athletes led the group. Some, like UT senior and footballer Solon Paige III, wanted justice for the black Americans killed and assaulted by police officers, greater education funding for black neighborhoods and the reality of American systemic racism to be confronted.
“We want justice. We want to be able to walk, sit and be where we want without having to look over our shoulders, or to drive down the street and wonder if we’re going to get pulled over or shot today,” Paige III said.
“It has to do with education. It has to do with accepting that this is actually going on. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and a lot aren’t aware that what’s happening is happening. They’ve told me ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you’ or ‘I didn’t know this was going on.’ It’s sickening. As a young black man, I’ve experienced racism my entire life. A lot of people don’t have to deal with that. We just want to be those kinds of people who don’t have to deal with racism.”
Some, like UT senior political science major and footballer Matthew Butler, want similar police reform, as well as more open-mindedness from the general public.
“I personally believe that the police department, on a federal scale, should be reformed (with) more racial and discriminatory training. In addition, I want those with internalized racism to open their perspectives,” Butler said. “If I raise my fist, I don’t feel like that connotates ignorance or divisiveness. I’m looking for unity; I’m looking for peace.”
The organizers themselves had two demands: that UT hire and retain more black faculty and staff, and that a zero tolerance policy towards hate speech and hate crime be added to the Student Code of Conduct.
“Point one: The university defines itself on being a safe place that aims to produce the best scholars, but we still have so much work to do to retain and recruit staff, faculty and students of color,” UT Student Body President, Karmen Jones, said at the start of the march.
“Point number two: Our Student Code of Conduct has been quick to reprimand students and student organizations for not adhering to COVID-19 university guidelines, yet we are yet to approve and confirm a zero tolerance policy for hate speech as a form of harassment. Are we not torchbearers that light the way for others to be better?”
Multiple UT administrators were among the marchers, including UT President Randy Boyd and Chancellor Donde Plowman.
Plowman expressed a desire to listen to and support students against racial issues.
“I’m here to listen and support our students and student athletes as they express themselves,” Plowman said. “Black lives matter like all lives matter. All lives matter, and black lives matter just like everybody else’s.”
Boyd similarly valued listening to student concerns, though he communicated a desire to balance racial reform with first amendment protections for free speech.
“Today, we march, but another day we’ll need to sit down together and talk about real and concrete ideas. The university wants to be a beacon of light,” Boyd said. “We’ve said many times that we have to maintain the first amendment and live within those parameters. But, in every way we can, we will be dissuading hate speech.”
When asked whether or not hate speech is covered by the first amendment, President Boyd responded “yes.”
As the march drew to an end, Trey Smith spoke to the crowd of hundreds. He condemned the powers that be for ignoring systemic racism. He described himself as “tired” of discrimination, calling for everyone to recognize American racism.
“Time after time in this country, black people have been marginalized, brutalized, murdered, discriminated against. My question is, how many more lives will it take?” Trey Smith said.
“I’m tired of being scared in my car of the police officer, worried about seeing a cop in public and having to look over my shoulder. I’m tired of worrying for my cousins, my brothers, my sisters, my aunts, my uncles. I’m tired of seeing black mothers crying over their dead children. Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till, had to show her baby in front of the world to expose the ugly head of racism within this country, but it seems it was not enough.”