The bright glare of the stadium lights glimmers off the gold of trumpets, saxophones, and horns. The Ames High Band marches into position. There is a certain tension in the stands. Before the national anthem is played, thirteen band members and two cheerleaders leave the field, silently linking arms as they exit.
“I would have gone alone if I had to, but it was so touching to look over at my friends arm-in-arm with me smiling together because they knew that it was the right thing to do,” said Owen Murphy, an Ames High student who participated in the walk off.
As the National Anthem begins to echo through the bleachers, the student section is on their feet. The fifteen students who chose to peacefully protest enter and stand in the student section.
Junior Hannah Kruger was one of two cheerleaders to walk off into the student section before the anthem was played. “I walked off to show solidarity for my peers who feel like the United States government does a poor job representing them,” said Krueger. “The protest for many people, including myself, was against the overwhelming amounts of injustice people in this country face both systematically and otherwise.”
To the left there are students wearing pink, others wearing the USA theme, and some wearing both. Some link arms, and others put their hand to their chest.
If you looked at the student section, there were people in pink next to people in America theme,” said Kirstin Sullivan, Ames High government and history teacher. “They were unified in their mutual respect for each other.”
The walk off occurred on Oct. 13 at a football game against Des Moines Lincoln. Ames High students remained civil throughout the game, putting their views on the peaceful protest aside as they cheered for the last home game of the season. However, the student section’s respectable behavior didn’t come without disagreement leading up to the game.
A week before the game, discussion emerged between several band members and SACRE (Students Advancing Civil Rights Education) about kneeling during the anthem. When news broke that the theme would be USA, students who planned to protest found themselves in a predicament.
Many of these students were under the impression that the game’s theme would be pink for Breast Cancer Awareness month, a tradition that Ames High has done for many years.
SACRE sent out an email Thursday morning to its members addressing the complication to their plans: “[I]t would be very deceptive if we were to wear red, white, and blue themed clothes, and then try to kneel. If you are one of the students planning to kneel for the national anthem, some of us have decided to go along with the pink out theme.”
Principal Spence Evans said that when students came up to him and asked about kneeling during the national anthem, he responded by saying that that was their personal choice and that he could not infringe on their First Amendment rights. However, when band members got involved, the issue became a bit more complex.
“[When] they asked me about the band, I said I’d have to think about that because… they were actually performing the song,” Evans said. The day before the protest, Evans checked with Superintendent Tim Taylor, who got in contact with a lawyer at School Administrators of Iowa. The consensus was that if students were going to be on the field during the anthem, they had to participate in the performance.
“I went… on Friday and talked to the band and said, ‘If you do not want to participate, please walk off the field and let the people who want to play, play,’” Evans said. Evans made the decision with student interest in mind, as he wanted to support all students while also making sure the school was following legal guidance.
Thursday night, a tweet was posted to the Ames High Student Section account saying that the theme would, in fact, be pink because the USA theme was “too controversial.”
After the tweet was posted, a storm of dissent emerged in response to the change of theme, and supporters were quick to justify why the change was necessary. The tweet received 36 comments, but many others posted their responses to their own pages, and the discussion became messy. Among the students taking part in the online discussion, there seemed to be a lot of talking and not enough listening.
The next morning, in the wake of the previous night’s social media buzz, the school was in a state of disgruntled confusion. Evans met with leaders of SACRE and Team Tailgate to facilitate a conversation between both sides to allow for much needed clarity.
“Spence suggested linking arms because it would show that we are united despite our differences. We all thought it was a good idea and agreed to it,” said junior Melina Hegelheimer, a SACRE leader.
“It was honestly just one big misunderstanding,” Hegelheimer said. “Team Tailgate just wanted to have a good senior night. We wanted to make a statement to bring attention to a problem that we cared about.”
Hegelheimer said “the whole thing [was] blown out of proportion” and could have been avoided if the two groups had talked face-to-face rather than on Twitter. Team Tailgate leaders declined The WEB’s request to comment. Despite all the confusion that let up to the game, there was little disruption, and both the game and protest took place smoothly.
The media quickly picked up on the protest. The walkout occurred at roughly 6:45 p.m. on Oct. 13, and The Des Moines Register published a story about it to their website at 8:32 p.m.
The Register reported: “Those who walked off faced some cursing from spectators in the stands,” but follow up with sophomore Lara Murray, one of the students who walked out, reveals that she had not witnessed this, but rather heard from another student that there had been booing.
The Des Moines register also reported that the walk out took place during the playing of the national anthem. But according to Murray, protesting students left prior to the performance as instructed by Principal Evans.
This inaccuracy was further magnified by conservative columnist and radio host Todd Starnes, who published an editorial on Oct. 15 bearing the headline: “SHAME! Marching Band Walks Off Field During National Anthem.” Fox News then featured Starnes’ blog post, where Starnes is a frequent correspondent, and consequently allowed the walk out to receive national attention.
Even before reading the article, the title is grossly inaccurate, implying that the entire “band” walked off the field, when in reality it was less than 4 percent out of a total of 350 people.
In addition, the image used for the story does not depict Ames High School, let alone Iowa, and is not cited otherwise. The facts provided by Starnes are limited and inaccurate, with an exaggerated choice of words that inflate a rather peaceful and anti-climactic scene.
Starnes refers to the walk off as an “anti-American uprising within the marching band” and a “musical insurrection,” implying a sort of violent uprising which, for those who were there, was not at all the case.
Starnes also claims both band director Chris Ewan and Ames High principal Spence Evans had no control over these “trombone-wielding anarchists” when in fact, all participants followed the agreed compromise exactly. Commenters on Twitter went as far as posting Ewan’s phone and email on Starnes’ twitter account. The band directors declined to comment.
Although many have found the article to be an unfortunate misrepresentation of the band members and the situation at-large, students have found ways to make light of the faulty media attention.
“I don’t believe that it’s [the protest] caused animosity within the band. Everyone has been joking about the ‘trombone wielding anarchist’ article!” senior Laura Emery said. While the band and school were united, the commentary from outside the school was certainly divisive.
“I would say [we received] well over 500 emails and well over a hundred phone calls,” Evans said. According to Evans the school received calls from 45 states. The Todd Starnes editorial on Fox alone got over 6,300 comments, nearly all of them negative.
“So young yet sooooo stupid already,” one read.
Another referred to the students as, “a cancer on decent members of society.”
“These kids barely know how to wipe their a**,” read another.
“How disgusting! Wonder who put them up to disrespecting our flag and country?” another asked.
“These comments diminish the value of student opinions and are offensive and unfounded,” Sullivan said. “Students are young and have limited life experience, but that does not mean they have nothing to offer the larger national conversation. The students I spoke to in the days before and after the protest were compassionate, thinking young people with a priority that was focused on making the country better. I think the people who made these negative comments could learn a lot about civil discourse from the students at Ames High School.”
“Students came to me and asked what they should do on Friday,” Sullivan said. “I told them to consider three things. Do you feel strongly about the issue at hand? Are you not being persuaded by someone else? And can you own the consequences?” Even if they didn’t have valid and well-articulated reasons for protesting, it would not have been grounds for the Administration to interfere.
“Students don’t lose their civil rights because they come to school,” Sullivan said.“There’s a court case Tinker v. Des Moines that says that.”
She is referring to a 1969 Supreme Court case regarding First Amendment rights in public schools. The case arose in 1965 when students Christopher Eckhardt and Beth Tinker decided they would would wear black armbands in support for a truce in Vietnam. The Des Moines school principals heard of this protest and created a policy where the students must remove the armbands or be suspended. The court ruled 7-2 that students could express free speech in school as long as the expression didn’t “materially and substantially interfere.”
The fact that the Ames students left prior to the playing of the Anthem and there was no disruption at the game demonstrates that the actions of the students didn’t violate any rules or laws.
Part of this discomfort has been illustrated by the fact that not everyone in the Ames community agreed with the protest. “I did not agree with the walk off at all,” said Emery. “I think that it created problems that didn’t need to be made, and brought a lot of negative attention to our school. The comments about Ames High having “racism, sexism, and homophobia” made our school look like a bad place to be, when actually it is a really safe and welcoming place.”
Hegelheimer and senior Makai Muhammed, a fellow SACRE leader, also believe the attention directed towards Ames as being negative, but hope to change the attention into something positive. “We’ve created all this attention… but now the [key] is we have to do something with it,” Hegelheimer said. “We have to make a positive impact. I don’t want people to think that that was it, because that’s the beginning.”
Emery explained her reasoning for disagreeing, saying she believed kneeling, sitting, or walking off during the anthem as disrespectful. “The national anthem was a time where everyone was unified. Everyone was unified in respecting the sacrifices that millions of men and women have made.”
To the students who walked off and to those who supported from the stands, kneeling does not equate disrespecting those who have served.
“What other times do you kneel? While praying, proposing, in front of a coach. [I]t’s a sign of respect, a sign of wanting a deeper relationship and deeper love. By kneeling people are not disrespecting, but rather saying they desire a deeper, better, relationship with the country.” said junior Amy Cyr, one of the 13 band members to walk off.
Muhammed offered another perspective, stating his uncle did multiple tours with the Marines and yet has still been racially profiled by police. “[W]hat do you say to someone who has both served and been a victim of injustice?”
“Some people may argue that because I am white, I have never experienced anything compared to what people of color have. And I agree,” said Emery. “I agree that there is racism in this world, and I believe that racism is a vile thing that should not be tolerated. However, just because I am white doesn’t mean that I don’t have a valid opinion. Opinions should never be dismissed. Instead, people should make an effort to understand why people have certain opinions.”
Senior Steven Parks also disagreed with the walk off, but finds the issue to be “many shades of gray”. He empathizes with those who have fought for our country and have had to carry the burden of traumatizing memories. “When I hear the anthem or see the flag I think of them,” said Parks. “Because of that, I do feel that in some ways it is disrespectful. However, Parks identifies the motivation of many veterans as defending our rights as Americans, namely free speech.
“It would be going against the exact ideals they fought to defend if I were to stop people from protesting or from speaking out about issues important to them. They’re taking a stance on an issue and wanting change through peaceful protest. In that way, it is one of the most American things someone can do,” Parks said.
Many in opposition believed the walk out to be inappropriate and that other actions should have been taken. However, senior Isabel Ingram, a SACRE leader “looked at it as the most peaceful way to express ourselves [and] our opinions.”
Muhammed adds to this saying the main goal of kneeling was to create a dialogue, and he along with the other SACRE leaders believe it was successful, Ingram saying the response was “beyond what they had expected would happen.”
Although she did not agree, Emery, as well as many others, understand the rights the students had in their actions. “While I do not agree with the walk off, I do believe that it is their First Amendment right,” Emery said. “Everyone has a right to say and practice what they believe, and this protest is an example of doing that.”
Within the leadership roles of Ames High there was general support. Ames High Student Co-presidents Trinity Jones and Anna Stevens expressed they were proud of those 13 band members who protested and defend and stand with them. “Even though we fought over differences within our school, we all came together to defend Ames High when Todd Starnes and other outsiders bashed on us,” said Stevens. The two hope to plan activities that encourage unity despite the opposing opinions present at Ames High.
Principal Evans has long been a advocate of school pride, unity and opportunities for students to be leaders. “What makes Ames so great is that students really put a lot of thought into if they’re going to take action, and what they will say,” Evans said.
Superintendent Tim Taylor echoed this praise. He continued that the students of Ames High never cease to amaze him with their academic success, their situational awareness, and their maturity.
The district also released a public statement where they acknowledge the situation and expressed their pride at how the students handled it: “Our student leaders showed great resolve when they came together, expressed their feelings and personal opinions with each other, and came together with a solution regarding the student section theme that they all supported,” the statement read. “They found that coming together as an Ames High student body was more important than letting politics impact their football game and senior night.”
This idea of civil disagreement is furthered by an editorial in the Ames Tribune on Oct. 16. “It doesn’t matter whether you like what the members of the Ames marching band did,” it read. “Can you accept that they had the right to do it? And can you appreciate that they conducted their protest in an organized, peaceful manner. We support the Ames High School marching band members and their right to express themselves. You should, too.”
Some linked arms. Some put their hand to their chest. Some wore pink. Some wore red, white and blue. The statement released by the district said: “We don’t anticipate finding a common ground any time soon,” regarding the controversial topic of protesting during the National Anthem. However, the students of Ames High will continue to discuss this issue in a respectful and unified way.