“You can scream at the top of your lungs all day, but there are still people, your people, who are in destitute situations, who need your help"
On September 17, a bright fall afternoon in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania football team hosted Lehigh University for its home opener. Before the game, while the Penn band performed the national anthem on Franklin Field, junior cheerleader Alexus Bazen, gripping a blue Penn flag, took a knee behind the eastern end zone. Standing in front of Bazen, her junior teammate Deena Char raised her right fist.
“You don’t know how long that song is until you’re on your knees,” a laughing Bazen tells GOOD over the phone during finals week. “When I stood up, every bone cracked. But it was really exhilarating.”
The protest occurred five days after the NFL’s opening weekend, when players across the league knelt, sat, and raised fists during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to draw attention to police brutality—following the preseason example set by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Over the course of the season, similar protests spread to high school football teams, high school and college marching bands, the NBA, the WNBA, and the National Women’s Soccer League.
The movement also infiltrated cheer squads. High school cheerleaders knelt in Nebraska, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Hours before Bazen and Char’s protest, the entire Howard University cheer team knelt during the anthem before the school’s matchup against Hampton University. Bazen and Char demonstrated at every home football game this season.
National anthem aside, it was a dramatic election cycle at Penn, where President-elect Donald Trump earned his bachelor’s degree (along with children Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Tiffany, who graduated this spring). The campus group stumping for Trump disbanded in January, and a majority of Penn College Republicans didn’t support him. In June, over 3,800 people representing Penn’s business school, Wharton, published a letter condemning Trump’s “xenophobia, sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry,” and alumni spread a petition demanding the school publicly disassociate from the candidate.
While the school never officially rebuked the president-elect, it supported Bazen and Char. “The University of Pennsylvania is strongly committed to an individual’s rights to freedom of speech and expression, and the Division of Recreation and Intercollegiate Athletics supports and respects that commitment,” Mike Mahoney, Penn’s director of athletic communications, tells GOOD in a statement. “We want our coaches to lead by example in respecting the opinions and thoughts of our student athletes and constituents, and this was an example of that leadership in action.”
Three days after Trump’s victory, black freshmen at Penn were added against their will to a GroupMe message titled “Mud Men,” filled with racial slurs, pro-Trump rhetoric, and lynching threats. The messages sparked campus protest and an FBI investigation. One of the freshman added was a cheerleader. The day after the incident, Penn held its final home football game, against Harvard, before which Bazen and Char protested again—their first official demonstration of the Trump era. This is their story.
Bazen, a medical and linguistic anthropology major, grew up in Thomasville, Georgia, a conservative 20,000-person town that “revolves around the church.” It’s famous for a 329-year-old tree known as “The Big Oak,” today memorialized as a local landmark, despite belief that it was once used to hang slaves. “If you’re ignorant to history, it’s very easy to live in that town,” Bazen says. “I was stuck and surrounded by people who would rather me forget that history.”
The daughter of two ex-military parents—her mom is now a social worker, her dad a nurse—Bazen grew up with copies of the Bible, the Quran, and the Torah in her home. Her parents encouraged her to learn about history, other cultures, and human rights. In addition to cheer, Bazen played the flute and the piccolo, played basketball, worked at the chamber of commerce, and served in the National Honor Society.
“Since I felt powerless to stand up vocally and make a scene physically, I did it instead through my academics,” Bazen says. She was the only student in her graduating class to attend an Ivy League school. “I think I opened a lot of people’s eyes … There were people waiting for me to mess up. That was the initial fuel for the fire of my activism and social justice work.”
Bazen started attending Penn in August 2014—less than a month after the Michael Brown protests in Ferguson, Missouri—amidst a surge in campus organizing, which helped her develop her own philosophy of activism.
“Community service is the root of any sort of social justice work,” Bazen says. She participates in marches, but joined the historically black sorority Zeta Phi Beta during sophomore year to do service work in west Philadelphia, including children’s mentoring, food and clothing drives, and scholarship fundraising events for local kids. “You can scream at the top of your lungs all day, but there are still people, your people, who are in destitute situations, who need your help.”
When professional athletes became politically disruptive this summer—starting with Minnesota Lynx players wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts—Bazen says she expected the movement to grow. When Kaepernick started kneeling, she sympathized. Bazen says she didn’t recite the pledge in high school. “Why would I pledge my allegiance to a country that thrives on systematically oppressing people who look like me?”
The Wednesday before Penn’s opening football game, Bazen texted her coach asking for approval to kneel, then secured permission from the marketing manager, although she says she would’ve protested regardless. When Bazen took the field against Lehigh, none of her teammates knew her plan. Char raised her fist in the spur of the moment. After the song ended and the cameras stopped flashing, Bazen ran her flag around the field, then sighed in relief.
“I was on the track and my head was still spinning,” Bazen says. “I was in such shock because I was expecting cops to come escort me out because somebody’s about to, you know, kick my ass. It was amazing. It was terrifying.”
Backlash began after The Daily Pennsylvanian published coverage of the game, which Penn lost 28-49. The school newspaper’s online comment section filled with attacks against Bazen and her mother. A man in Thomasville started threatening Bazen’s family on Facebook. After receiving violent messages, Bazen scrubbed her email address and phone number from the internet.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I was stuck and surrounded by people who would rather me forget that history.[/quote]
“I really questioned whether I would even continue to do it. I cried, I prayed, I screamed,” Bazen says. She decided to keep kneeling because she saw it working firsthand. “There’s always been a new person who’s come up to me and said something, whether it be good, whether it be bad. Even if it’s just one person, it shows me that the message I’m trying to get across, it’s reaching somebody and it’s affecting somebody.”
Then of course, the kneeling side lost. With 2.9 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump won the White House. Pennsylvania swung Republican for the first time since 1988. On November 11, a University of Oklahoma student added black Penn freshman to a racist GroupMe that was briefly titled “TRUMP IS LOVE” and featured a “daily lynching” calendar invitation.
“It was devastating, but it was a wake-up call,” Bazen says. The cheer team called a meeting with their coach before the Harvard game to address the situation, at which a freshman cheerleader burst into tears. “I felt so terrible, and I felt so helpless, and I felt so angry for her. And I felt even more motivated to go out there and kneel.”
Since the basketball season started, Bazen has continued to kneel at every game she’s assigned to cheer—with one exception, the day after a knee injury in practice. Bazen has a knee brace now, so it’s not a concern. Stopping isn’t an option, she says.
“Has racial violence stopped? Has police brutality stopped?” Bazen says. “Months later it's still riling people up, and it's still starting conversations, and it's still inspiring people and mobilizing people, and who am I to take that away?”
While Bazen came to Penn’s rarefied bubble straight from Dixie, Char experienced a different type of culture shock. She grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, living the “island lifestyle.” During her childhood, Char remembers Asians being a majority, and locals crusading for Hawaiian rights.
“White colonialism, and that kind of resentment towards white people, exists a lot in Hawaii,” Char says. “Having to come to an area, especially like Penn, that’s a predominantly white institution was a struggle because I never had to face that power dynamic before.”
During her first semester, Char remembers hallmates making jokes about the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In December, the fraternity Phi Theta Delta published a Christmas card-themed group photo featuring a black sex doll.
“That was to me the eye-opening moment,” Char says. “Like, this campus is racist, or there are members on this campus that frankly do not understand why that’s not okay.”
Char studies finance and marketing at Wharton, with a minor in Japanese studies. She’s also a residential assistant, meaning she lives with and advises a hall full of freshman. When NFL players started protesting during the national anthem this fall, she discussed the movement with her residents, who know her as a football diehard. Char told her kids she personally supported Kaepernick and broadly supported his right to freedom of speech.
“I just looked over and saw one of my residents just shaking his head,” Char says. “I was like, ‘If you want to disagree, you are more than okay to disagree here. I legitimately want to hear your stance!’ He was just like, ‘I can’t even talk about it.’”
While Char says she has experienced moments herself of not feeling comfortable singing the national anthem, she didn’t plan to protest at the Lehigh game. Char found out Bazen’s plan as they were lining up on the field. When she saw Bazen kneel, Char threw up her right fist, spontaneously inspired to support a teammate and a movement.
“It was honestly just so liberating to overcome that fear for me,” Char says. “Asian culture in general is very much about just keeping your head low, going with the status quo. I think that was the first time, for me, that I was able to break into action.”
To Char’s hometown friends and family, the decision was blasphemous. Hawaii is highly militarized. Her mom, a veteran, called Char and told her to keep her head low. Char’s high school classmates on Facebook called her disrespectful, and said she should contact her state representative (who, unbeknownst to the classmates, is already Char’s family friend).
Char says the hate fuels her, although she admits to a moment of weakness during the last regular season game against Harvard, the day after the racist GroupMe. The cheer team lined up outside the locker room tunnel, joined by a predominantly black youth football team—seven- and eight-year-olds there to high-five players as they entered the field. According to Char, two women sitting in Penn’s field side athletic boosters club loudly shamed and berated her and Bazen’s protests throughout the pre-game festivities.
“I teared up a little bit during that protest just because I saw these kids, and I couldn’t take it,” Char says. “They’re just going to witness it as: These women really don’t think my life matters… Their parents and their mentors and their coaches are telling them that they matter, that they’re gonna be so successful in life, but how can they believe that if the entire world is against them?”
With football season over and Trump in office, Char says she wants to continue initiating conversations, but more importantly improve as an ally.
“I’m here to listen and I’m here to support. I think that’s what I learned,” Char says. “This isn’t about me. This isn’t about how guilty you feel. This is about us right now. This is about black people and black lives matter.”