In 2016, Georgia Tech Goldrush dance team member Raianna Brown took a knee during the anthem before a football game. A photo of her act, which was motivated by the protest movement started by Colin Kaepernick, recently went viral in light of the many other athletes who decided to take a knee this season. While some have interpreted the act of taking a knee as anti-patriotic, Brown explained to MTV News what her act really meant.
In 2016, another innocent black man, Terrence Crutcher — a father, brother, son, and student — was fatally shot by a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The impact of his death, along with [the deaths of] many others that year, was just the last straw for me as far as the killing of innocent people of color. I saw Colin Kaepernick's peaceful protest and began to follow him [in the news] and read his statements. That was really the catalyst for wanting to to kneel at the game during the anthem.
There wasn’t much conversation on campus about police brutality or Colin Kaepernick. Georgia Tech is a predominately white institution. I believe last year was the first time in a couple years there actually had been black dancers on the [dance] team. That was part of the reason I wanted to take the knee — to begin a conversation about these issues that white students at a predominantly white institution weren't necessarily thinking about.
I was super nervous the day before. I was convinced people would scream horrible things at me or rush down onto the field and attack me. But I still felt that I needed to take a knee, to take a stand for something I believe in.
The dance team does something we call “yellow jacket alley” before games. It's basically tailgating, so we get to the game two hours before it starts. We dance on campus and cheer as the football players walk through. During all of that [on the day I first protested], my mind was not there. I had talked to a couple of the girls on the team prior to the game to let them know what I was going to do and had talked to the coach, but was still super nervous.
When the time for the anthem came, I was freaking out. I centered myself by saying the names of people who had been killed by racial injustice and police brutality to myself — names ranging from Emmett Till to Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Terrence Crutcher, Erik Garner, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile. I said all these names in my head, and I'm pretty sure I started crying while I was kneeling.
I centered myself by saying the names of people who had been killed by racial injustice and police brutality to myself — names ranging from Emmett Till to Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Terrence Crutcher, Erik Garner, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile. I said all these names in my head, and I'm pretty sure I started crying, too, while I was kneeling.
I did the same thing every time [I kneeled] after that. That was my routine. I would say those names to myself and center myself on why I was doing it. [I didn’t kneel] because I wanted a picture to go viral. I wanted to bring these conversations about people being killed to fruition. Some of these people were children. Mike Brown's body laid in the street for four hours. Bringing attention to that is so much more important than any negative comments I could've received.
Additionally, I thought about what the Little Rock Nine probably thought when they were integrated into their school — especially Ruby Bridges because she was so young and walked through a huge crowd of screaming people. She had the strength to do that. My ancestors and people who came before have done things that were much harder to create change. That's really where I got my strength from.
Fast forward to this year. I reposted the picture after talking to the lady who does my nails about Colin Kaepernic. I told her I kneeled at last year's game. She was like, "Oh, do you have a picture? I think you should repost that." Later that day, I went to talk to my co-founder about our [dance company’s] show in November, and when I came back I opened my social media. I was just shocked.
I received some crazy emails and did have a couple of challenging conversations [after the photo went viral]. But freedom of speech is so important and it's important for us to be able to engage in civil discourse. Maybe you don't agree with everything [someone] says, but you can probably find middle ground. I think that's when real change happens. We're not always going to agree, but if we're headed in the same direction, which for me is beginning to recognize the humanity in everyone, then from there you can coexist in a more healthy way. That's how you can create more peace and more love.
Kneeling wasn't about disrespecting the flag. It wasn't about saying America is horrible or anything like that. Kneeling isn’t about individual people, but systematic issues that have been going on in the United States essentially forever. The mistreatment of a student of color by on-campus police or the mistreatment of imprisoned people are not individual incidents; they’re institutionalized, systemic issues. When I protested, I joined countless other athletes and artists who've used their platforms to encourage America to become its best self. The American flag, for me, is a symbol of my right to peacefully protest, so kneeling was one of my most patriotic moments.
Kneeling wasn't about disrespecting the flag. It wasn't about saying America is horrible or anything like that. Kneeling isn’t about individual people, but systematic issues that have been going on in the United States essentially forever.
There's a stereotype that dancers and cheerleaders are mindless eye candy and don't really care about what's going on in the world or the social and political zeitgeist, but that's not the case at all. We have thoughts about what's going on in the world and want to use our platform to make a difference. My goal is to create art that leads people to think, to feel something, or to just start to have an idea about something they didn't think about before. Art and movement can surpass your conscious polarized fields of thought; it gets straight into your subconscious where it creates a feeling. [Viewers] start to think about these things and have these conversations, even if it's just with themselves in their head. [These thoughts] are where I think real change comes from. But you have to have something that sparks them. That’s the goal with taking the knee and the type of dance and art I create — to spark those conversations.
Raianna is dual enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she studies industrial engineering, and Emory University, where she studies dance. She hopes to work in humanitarian logistics, specifically with disaster relief organizations like the Red Cross and FEMA, and use industrial engineering and manufacturing principles to help people receive aid as effectively and efficiently as possible. She is the co-founder of RAIIN Dance Theater.