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Monday, December 1, 2014

St. Louis Police Demand Discipline for Rams Who Held Up Their Hands

Things become very complicated, especially when issues that require immediate attention come to the fore. Ferguson just won't go away. Even though I believe the shooting of Michael Brown was a tragedy, I do not think this particular incident represents an ideal choice of dissent for organized protests.

Still, the truth is that police brutality and racial profiling have been simmering problems for many, many years. Peaceful protests will continue in light of the discontent over the grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Wilson. I pray the riots cease while the unrest occurs.

In this case, public reactions of protest largely depend upon the amount of trust and/or distrust people have in law enforcement and in the justice system. No doubt many minorities believe inequalities exist that often prevent fair judgment. And, it is evident that poor public relations is a definite problem for these legal bodies. People want reform. As Americans with rights, these people are allowed to display their feelings in demonstrations.

The Latest Point of Contention

By now, we all understand that the so-called "hands up, don't shoot" gesture has been commonly used by demonstrators protesting the decision of a St. Louis County grand jury to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown.  

Prior to the kickoff of their game against the Oakland Raiders on November 30, Rams wide receivers Tavon Austin and Kenny Britt came out together and raised their hands, but the move was obscured by a smoke machine in the upper reaches of the Edward Jones Dome. Jared Cook, Stedman Bailey and Chris Givens then came out and stood together with hands raised in the fog.

Rams player Jared Cook said they took this action to show the need for a change. "I just think there has to be a change," Cook said after the Rams' 52-0 win. "There has to be a change that starts with the people that are most influential around the world. No matter what happened on that day, no matter how the whole situation went down, there has to be a change."

A St. Louis police officers' group called on the NFL to punish these five St. Louis Rams players who stood with their hands raised before trotting onto the field for pregame introductions.

The St. Louis Police Officers' Association said it was "profoundly disappointed" with what it called a "display that police officers around the nation found tasteless, offensive and inflammatory." It called for the players involved to be disciplined and for both the league and team to issue a "very public apology."

("St. Louis police group demands punishment for Rams players in Ferguson protest." and Associated Press. December 01, 2014)

Regardless of whether the police, the team, or the public was displeased with this simple, non-violent act of protest, I believe the players had every right to employ this gesture. To issue a statement of "disappointment" and to "demand discipline and an apology" from the team and from the NFL confirms the lack of regard and understanding held by the St. Louis Police Officers' Association.

Coach Jeff Fisher said he'd not been aware the gesture had been planned by the players.

SLPOA (St. Louis Police) Business Manager Jeff Roorda played down the notion that the players were exercising their right to free speech, saying ""I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights. Well, I've got news for people who think that way, cops have first amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours."

"I'd remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser's products," Roorda added. "It's cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do. Somebody needs to throw a flag on this play. If it's not the NFL and the Rams, then it'll be cops and their supporters."

I ask you to judge the so-called egregious action of the Rams players versus the incendiary comments of Roorda. Roorda's reactionary tone is threatening and, to be quite honest, condescending. To demand that the players "be disciplined" and that the league and the team "throw a flag on the play" or face some kind of retribution from the "cops and their supporters" is simply out of touch with public sentiment. In this case, it is the police who are being "inflammatory."

In fact, this is precisely the problem the protesting players were addressing: there needs to be a change in police and public interactions. These young players did nothing more that employ a symbol of solidarity. If the police association is so indignant about their peaceful actions, they need a dose of reality.

I understand the frustration of the police with the horrible riots. They risk their lives to restore the peace, save businesses, and protect lives. I greatly admire them for that. And, I absolutely agree that "violent thugs" are nasty criminals who should be arrested and charged with serious crimes. With all of that in mind, I also strongly believe police, as public servants, should not mix politics with equal protection under the law.

The players knew exactly what they meant by raising their hands. I'm sure they were mindful of some mixed reaction to their protest. Were they wrong in doing so while wearing their St. Louis Rams uniforms?

Perhaps the bigger question is this: "Were the members of the police officers' association, wearing their symbolic uniforms, wrong in their reaction to such a timely demonstration?" If they were, then they need to apologize to the NFL, the team, and specifically to Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, Jared Cook, Stedman Bailey, and Chris Givens. It makes me wonder if the association would have even cared in the first place if the protesting players were white.

"The change needs to start with the most influential." I see nothing wrong with these words and I would happily raise my hands too if that would help bring about the obviously needed reform. Mr. Roorda, to link these young men to the thugs in the riots is an injustice itself. You should consider your position before you mouth your own "tasteless" words.

Racial profiling punishes innocent individuals for the past actions of those who look and sound like them. It misdirects crucial resources 
and undercuts the trust needed between law enforcement and the communities they serve. It has no place in our national discourse, 
and no place in our nation's police departments." 

--Benjamin Todd Jealous

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