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.