By Aaron Leibowitz
When Sony decided to cancel its release of “The Interview” earlier this month, many Americans treated the decision as an affront to their First Amendment freedoms. When the film hit theaters last week, patriots rejoiced: We could finally exercise our inalienable right to see Seth Rogan and James Franco make light of oppression in North Korea. America!
Those who were upset about The Interview fiasco must have been enraged, then, to hear about the recent assault on free speech in Northern California. The boys and girls varsity basketball teams at Mendocino High School were disinvited from a tournament that begins today at Fort Bragg High. Why? Because they had worn “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts at previous games — and the Fort Bragg administration was afraid they would wear them again.
The shirts would present a safety hazard, according to Fort Bragg principal Rebecca Walker.
AP Photo/Fort Bragg Advocate-News, Chris Calder
“To protect the safety and well-being of all tournament participants it is necessary to ensure that all political statements and or protests are kept away from this tournament,” Walker wrote on behalf of the school. “We are a small school district that simply does not have the resources to ensure the safety and well-being of our staff, students and guests at the tournament should someone get upset and choose to act out.”
While the Mendocino boys squad was re-invited to the tournament after all but one player — 16-year-old Connor Woods, who will be staying home in protest — agreed not to wear the shirts, the girls refused to back down. Today, as the tournament begins, they will be holding a rally at Fort Bragg High, “a peaceful exercise of free speech rights and to raise awareness about racism and police brutality.”
Principal Walker, meanwhile, maintained that “players who could not set aside their ‘personal beliefs about a situation that occurred on the other side of our country’ would not be allowed to participate.”
According to 2010 Census data, both Mendocino and Fort Bragg have black populations of less than one percent. With that in mind, the white Mendocino players are somewhat misguided in saying “I Can’t Breathe”; shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” would be more apt.
Still, that’s certainly not the beef Walker is raising. Note that, in her written statement, she twice uses the phrase “safety and well-being.” Whose safety? Whose well-being? Last I checked, none of the hundreds of athletes wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts at the high school, collegiate and professional levels have jumped into the audience and attacked unsuspecting fans, or vice versa. No one has, as Walker suggests could happen, chosen to act out in any way in response to the shirts.
When Walker talks about “safety and well-being,” it’s code for something else: comfort. Those shirts would make people uncomfortable. They might even make people unhappy. Comfort and happiness, in this case, are being valued over the message that black lives matter.
Bursting the bubble of comfort, of course, is exactly the point of protest. Bringing awareness of anti-black police brutality to insulated cities like Fort Bragg is exactly the point of the ongoing movement.
It’s a shame that the Mendocino girls won’t be playing basketball today. But kudos to them for recognizing that comfort can take a back seat to what’s right. Kudos to them for standing — unlike Fort Bragg — on the right side of history.
UPDATE: Here’s a photo of the Mendocino girls basketball team and others protesting at Fort Bragg High this morning, courtesy of Jasper N Henderson on Twitter (@jaspernighthawk).