Manhattanville College (Manhattanville, N.Y.) basketball player Toni Smith turned her back at a 90-degree angle away from the American flag while the Pledge of Allegiance was recited before her games last season. She did so quietly, without calling attention to her action. Then curious spectators and parents began to notice and complain. A game between the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on Feb. 16 began and ended with large crowds booing, shoving flags in her face, and yelling for her to “Leave the country!” Smith’s quiet action touched off a media firestorm. She was condemned by editorialists and received hate mail suggesting that she move to Iraq. As a response to the attacks, Smith issued a short statement through her college (whose dean and basketball coach both supported her right to dissent). Her statement reads, “For some time now, the inequalities embedded into the American system have bothered me . and I cannot, in good conscience, salute the flag.” Although Saddam Hussein’s regime has been toppled, dissenters in the United States still face harsh criticism for speaking out against military action. Smith agreed to share her thoughts on her experience with Rethinking Schools in hopes that others will be inspired to “stand for something lest they fall for anything,” to quote her basketball team stat page.
Q: You told the Associated Press “the government’s policies are about expanding its own power.” What are some of those policies?
A: First and foremost, we’re spending $400 billion on a military budget, and social services have been cut. Fifteen percent of kids in the United States don’t have health coverage, and many of those students go to schools that are lacking resources. There are obvious inequalities, prejudices, racism, and racial profiling. For example, 90 percent of inmates in New York state prisons are black or Hispanic, and most of them are nonviolent offenders. The Rockefeller laws completely destroyed neighborhoods in the South Bronx and Brooklyn with convictions of nonviolent drug-related offenders.
Q: Your protest evokes the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. Why did you choose the court and not a campus rally?
A: A common mis-understanding about my protest is that I was protesting the war. This wasn’t a protest I set out to make about the war, using the basketball court as my forum. It’s just the evolutionary stage I’ve gotten to in my life. I didn’t feel I could look at the flag anymore. It wasn’t my goal to have media swarming me.
Q: Have you been involved politically on campus?
A: I’ve recently started going to meetings at the Connie Hogarth Social Action and Peace Center [on campus]. There are not too many political organizations on campus, and our campus isn’t too political. There’s a Black Student Union and a Latino Student Union but other than that, the groups are pretty social, not political.
Q: Would you say that other public figures have a responsibility to speak out about issues they feel strongly about?
A: I don’t really feel like celebrities or athletes of any level necessarily have an obligation to speak out any more than anyone else. But already being in the spotlight and already having your voice heard, I think it’s a waste if you have your publicity and don’t use it. I think it’s a shame now that some celebrities are being shut up.
Q: What words of encouragement or advice would you give to young people being bombarded by different messages who are trying to make up their minds on what is true and what is not?
A: I think it’s very important, especially now, to challenge everything they hear. It may not be obvious, but most of the information we get is very one-sided, except for alternative media, and that’s not widely distributed. Once you hear that the truth has been distorted, it’s up to you to challenge it and do your research and go out and make your own decisions. There are some people who believe whatever is said to them. Once you have enough information, it’s easier not to get bombarded.
Q: What has this experience taught you?
A: It’s been a true awakening to witness firsthand what the American media is capable of and how it defines the American public. I’ve done a lot of research on this in my sociology classes, and did my thesis on it. To be able to witness everything you studied is a little surreal. … I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails and letters saying other people have started to turn their backs [on the flag] because they’re disappointed in how the American public has acted toward me. I was never politically active for years, but I was getting more coverage than did 11 million people who gathered worldwide to protest the war.
There’s a belief that everyone in this society has the opportunity to do what he or she wants but it’s pretty obvious since we’re in a capitalist system that everyone can’t make it to the top. The system would collapse. There has to be an underclass. Many people never make it to the top. Not because they haven’t earned it. It’s the family you’re born into and how much money you have.
We have to remember that America prides itself on being the best nation in the world. We claim that everyone is equal, but they’re not. We claim Blacks are equal, but they’re disproportionately placed in jails and racially profiled. We claim we are free, but our ideas and our opinions are shaped by the media outlets that are owned by, like, six people. So I think if we are proclaiming to be as great as we think we are, then it’s not okay to have these inequalities. It’s not okay that the United States isn’t ranking high in things like health care or education for citizens. It is every person’s responsibility to be sympathetic to those who are suffering, including those overseas. The majority of Americans are bombarded by media images and trying to have that “American dream,” and they don’t make time to think about other issues. And that’s why it was gratifying for me to turn my back on the flag because that’s an issue that is bigger than sports. Sports are like a religion in this country.
Q: You’re getting your B.A. in sociology. What are your future plans?
A: I’m trying to get involved in the nonprofit sector wherever I can. I’m interested in a lot of social justice issues, particularly homelessness. There are so many issues that could be tackled. This situation has definitely closed some doors and opened some new ones.