Berkeley High School football team protests school’s issues with racial inequality before homecoming game

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A kneeling protest organized by the Berkeley High School football team last month to address the school’s persisting issues of diversity and racial inequity was the focus of an HBO VICE News Tonight segment that aired Friday.

During Berkeley High’s homecoming game against Piedmont High School, the team knelt together and linked arms as the national anthem was sung, forming a line across the field. The team made banners with the photographs of Black men shot by police officers, such as Oscar Grant, and handwritten messages such as “My Life Matters” and “BHS Football Kneels for Justice.”

The idea of a protest started back in September, when three of the players raised their fists during the national anthem at another game. At the time, head coach CJ Johnson told them to lower their hands, wanting to make sure that everyone on the team understood the meaning behind such a protest and to give everyone the opportunity to express whether they wanted to participate or not.

“They had to understand that, ‘Hey, just because you’re expressing how you feel, there could be some negative stuff that happens,’ ” Johnson said.

After that initial incident, team members began researching the history and meaning behind such demonstrations, leading to a team-wide discussion about the importance of the protest. After their meeting — which HBO filmed as part of a story on high school protests — the team decided to put on a formal demonstration for the homecoming game in an effort to better represent students of color at Berkeley High.

For Jaden Lewis, a senior at Berkeley High and one of the team’s captains, protesting at the homecoming game made sense because the high attendance would increase visibility while faced against a team whose school is predominately white. He said it was important that the players were true to themselves — protesting by their own volition rather than because of expectations stemming from Berkeley’s culture of liberalism.

“We’re not doing things because we’re obligated — we do them because we feel that way,” Lewis said. “We all came together and had to look at ourselves and said, ‘No, this is something we would do anywhere.’ No matter where I’m going to school, I would do it.”

Last November, thousands of Berkeley High School students staged a walkout, marching throughout the city in protest of the appearance of racist images on social media. Today, diversity is still an issue at Berkeley High but in the form of academic segregation, said both Lewis and Brandon Bailey, a senior who is also a team captain.

Berkeley High divides its students into five “small schools,” each of which focuses on a particular area of study. According to Bailey, though, the schools that promote a “harder” curriculum tend to be made up mostly of white students, with Black and Latino students enrolled in schools perceived to be less challenging.

“You can see the separation in race,” Bailey said, referencing a class discussion that arose after different schools watched the new movie “The Birth of a Nation” together. He said that in the schools with the International Baccalaureate program or Academic Choice program, “They don’t really talk about (racial issues) as much. You can kind of see … how much education they have in this particular circumstance.”

According to Berkeley High Principal Sam Pasarow, the administration is aware of these concerns and is working on increasing “culturally responsive teaching” to close the opportunity gap at Berkeley High. He acknowledged that there are some issues associated with a large student body fragmented into smaller schools.

“Anyone can just take a knee. Now what do you do?” Johnson said. “Now that you’ve come up with what you want to do, what are you gonna do beyond that?

Contact Ashley Wong at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @wongalum.