Kennesaw State President Sam Olens’ investiture celebration on Oct. 19 was overshadowed by protests supporting five cheerleaders who took a knee during the national anthem at a football game several weeks ago and were later absent during the anthem at subsequent games.
A group of peaceful protesters attended the investiture to express their support of the cheerleaders. The black-clad group knelt with their fists raised while the national anthem played, cupping their hands over their mouths.
Two days prior to the ceremony that formally granted Olens the authority of office, a series of text messages obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that prominent political figures, including state Rep. Earl Ehrhart and Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren, may have pressured Olens into keeping the cheerleaders off the field during the national anthem. Olens has denied that he was subject to any outside influence on the matter.
“For me, silence is compliance. According to the text messages, he was dragged into [the decision],” said Sydney Jordan, a protester and senior public relations major. “You’re the president. This ceremony was for you, so you have the authority to tell them no, and you didn’t.”
“I believe that we need a huge apology, the cheerleaders need an apology, their families need an apology,” she added.
The protest is the third to happen in the wake of the cheerleaders’ demonstration. A few of the organizers indicated they intend to take the issue to the Student Government Association.
Immediately following the investiture, the protesters took to the Campus Green chanting, “Ain’t no power like the power of the people, ’cause the power of the people doesn’t stop,” gathering a large crowd of about 100 more people as they walked.
Positioning themselves in the middle of the reception that was scheduled to follow the ceremony, the protesters kneeled and raised their fists as the marching band began to play “Auld Lang Syne.” An individual in the crowd played a low drum imitating the rhythm of a heartbeat as the protesters knelt together.
“We’ve always approached them in a very peaceful and respectful manner, but it seems like they’ve always backed down from us or hid from us,” said Galina Fon, a senior marketing major. “So this seemed like the perfect event to approach them in a peaceful and respectful manner.”
After the chanting subsided, the protest organizers addressed the crowd. Senior exercise science major Aleaka Cooper spoke first, sharing a megaphone with Patrick Pickett.
“Our cheerleaders do not deserve to be attacked for using their first amendment rights,” Cooper said.
Pickett told the protesters that they gathered in unity, and that “it is necessary that our voices be heard.”
Although most of those present at the investiture did not engage with the protesters, some said they could see reason behind their actions.
“This is nonviolence, and that’s what I always promote,” said Wim Laven, a graduate student in international conflict. “Promoting nonviolence doesn’t mean I support or don’t support the cause, I just think it allows for better dialogue.”
While the organizers expressed solidarity with the cheerleaders, the focus of the protest shifted from their actions to Olens’ response, which many saw as an attempt to silence the demonstrations. The speakers aired grievances that despite Olens’ “open door” policy, he had yet to engage with them in person.
A disruptor entered the crowd and stood silently next to the speakers with his hand over his heart until some members of the crowd began to heckle him while others said to “let him stand.” After a minute of standing, the disruptor began making inflammatory comments to the crowd.
When the protest resumed, Pickett told the crowd that rhetoric like the disruptor’s was a distraction from their mission.
“They are trying to deflect,” Pickett said. “We are not a hate group. We are proud to be American citizens, and at the base of every community there is love.”
Cory Hancock, Sabrina Kerns and Jesus Aguilar contributed to this article.