A gathering of about 40 students collected in a semi-circle on The Green at 1 p.m. on Oct. 16 to show support for the five Kennesaw State cheerleaders who took a knee at Sept. 30’s football game.
The protest, organized by junior civil engineering major David Corinthian and senior exercise science major Aleaka Cooper, comes in the wake of President Sam Olens’ alleged comments to Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren promising that the actions taken by the cheerleaders “would not happen again.”
Corinthian and Cooper said that such comments undermine the First Amendment rights of student-athletes and serve to silence students. The students participating hoped that by amassing a public presence, students may get Olens’ attention and ear.
Corinthian said the protest was meant to “bring my peers together to see if one of us is being silenced, then stand behind them.”
After half an hour, sophomore engineering major Kenneth Sturkey arrived at the protest in his full costume as KSU’s mascot Scrappy the Owl. After Sturkey appeared on The Green, the number of student protestors increased to around 60-80 students.
“The uniform was my own idea because at first, I was just on The Green holding a sign, but one thing I noticed was that there weren’t as many numbers as I was expecting,” Sturkey said. “We have five cheerleaders, and I know these cheerleaders. I stand with their protest and with their right to protest.”
At 1:40 p.m., the students began marching across campus, passing The Commons and approaching KSU Village before looping back around the Zuckerman Museum of Art and back to The Green. As they marched, students and professors held signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” “#TakeaKneeKSU” and “We Will Not Be Silenced” while chanting “silence is compliance” and “no justice, no peace.”
When the march reached The Green again, the number of participants had swelled to more than 100 student and faculty members. Cooper spoke to the crowd through a megaphone, saying that “the ‘bad press’ will continue” until the cheerleaders’ rights to free speech were recognized and honored.
Among the active participants was Dr. Benjamin Williams, President of the Cobb County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. According to Williams, the protest highlights a disconnect between leadership and the student body that has invigorated student activism.
“You cannot interfere with the students’ right to protest,” Williams said. “As president of an academic institution, Sam Olens’ first responsibility is the students.”
Several participants said that the protest was not only about the right to take the knee but also about what the cheerleaders were saying by taking the knee. In the wake of the national discussion on police brutality and racial discrimination, many organizers feel that they are not heard and their methods of speaking are being misconstrued or ignored.
“I’m out here because I want to understand what we can do to get our point across,” said Jayona Johnson, a sophomore education major. “This was never about disrespecting the flag. This is about honoring the people we’ve lost. We can’t do anything without the fear of our lives being taken away, and that’s why we’re standing here today.”
Other students noted that the protest was a continuation of an important conversation about civil rights in the United States.
“The ‘Kennesaw Five’ is just a manifestation of the long history of police brutality and institutional racism in the United States,” said senior political science major Alexa Vaca.
Several students said that organizing was a way to safely voice their fears and concerns while drawing attention to important dialogues on campus.
“I’ve been scared for my friends too, who might not come back home, and then you have people who kneel to stand for equality and justice, and you punish them for it,” said senior marketing major Galina Fon. “These issues are not things we’ve just started fighting for… these are issues that have been happening since MLK.”
At 2:15 p.m., an anonymous student intern for the athletic department told organizers via GroupMe that talks were in place discussing the firing of Sturkey for participating in the protests as Scrappy the Owl. In response to this, protestors marched to the Department of Athletics’ Office to show support for Sturkey’s decision to march as Scrappy the Owl.
The athletic department directed The Sentinel’s request for comment on Scrappy’s participation in the protest to the Office of the President. They have not responded to this request.
A crowd of protestors waited quietly in the halls of the Convocation Center as Sturkey and the protesters entered the office intending to meet with athletics staff.
A representative said that there were not executive staff members present in the department at the time of the protestors’ arrival. Upon hearing this, organizers and protestors left the building.
“I did not have permission from the athletic department, so whatever they wanna do, that’s perfectly fine,” Sturkey said. “It’s not about Scrappy. It’s about these girls, it’s about the protest and it’s about the movement.”
Outside of the Convocation Center, before the crowd returned to The Green, Cooper said, “Tell them why this protest touches you. Just because we’re young doesn’t mean we can’t make a change. We’re making history right now.”
Last week, a protest hosted on the corner of Chastain Road and Frey Road on Oct. 11 attracted several KSU students and faculty in support of the five cheerleaders.
Those present at that protest, which was organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, argued the cheerleaders’ demonstration is a First Amendment right and criticized comments made by Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren, who expressed his outrage about the display to the Marietta Daily Journal.
According to the athletics department, keeping the cheerleaders in the tunnel for the anthem was part of a restructuring of the gameday schedule to align with how other universities introduce their teams.
Olens acknowledged the odd timing of the restructuring but would not confirm it was connected to the protests of the previous week.
The cheerleaders said that regardless of whether they are permitted onto the field, they will continue to take a knee in the tunnel of the stadium when the national anthem is played.
One of the cheerleaders, Michaelyn Wright, said a coach tried to prevent her from walking onto the field during the national anthem before the Oct. 3 game, telling her it was for her own safety.
Nick O’Neill, Raychle Wilkinson, Jesus Aguilar and Darrin Hypsher contributed to this article.