‘It’s our anthem, too’: Demonstrators will keep kneeling outside Heinz Field to protest police violence

“We plan to get out there unless police violence against black bodies stops in America,” organizer Tracy Baton said.

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Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
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People will take a knee during the national anthem at Sunday’s Steelers game regardless of what happens on the sidelines.

Much like they did at the team’s preseason home game against the Titans, a group of demonstrators led by 55-year-old Tracy Baton will kneel outside Heinz Field to renew their calls for social justice and police accountability.

Baton of Park Place has permits to host identical demonstrations at every Steelers home game this year and the playoffs as well, should the team make it.

“We plan to get out there unless police violence against black bodies stops in America,” Baton told The Incline by phone. “If the arc of justice bends that fast — but I don’t think it does.”

Participants are pictured at the Aug. 25 “Stand for Justice/Kneel for Those Who Cannot” protest outside Heinz Field.

Participants at the Aug. 25 “Stand for Justice/Kneel for Those Who Cannot” protest outside Heinz Field.

COURTESY CAROLYN GIBBS

You may recognize Baton as the director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Women’s March on Washington. She’s also a licensed social worker in Homewood and McKeesport.

Her “Stand for Justice/Kneel for Those Who Cannot” protest comes two years after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the anthem to protest the oppression of people of color. While he no longer plays for the NFL, Kaepernick is now the subject of a new Nike ad campaign, a move that’s refueled a running and vitriolic national debate around the protests.

Baton’s protest also follows the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Antwon Rose II in East Pittsburgh in June.

“Our main concern was really around continuing to bring forward the message that police violence really has to stop and police violence really isn’t the American way,” Baton said.

In Cleveland, about three-dozen Donald Trump supporters gathered before last Sunday’s game against the Steelers to protest anthem kneeling, WOSU Radio reported. Given the ideological divide on this issue — more NFL fans are opposed to players kneeling than Americans as a whole — Baton said the response in Pittsburgh, at least before the preseason game, was less than hostile.

“[At the preseason game] people were watching us and curious, but I’m glad to say Pittsburgh is the best city in the world,” Baton said. “Some gave us thumbs up and others went by minding their business — one said something but it wasn’t harsh. Pittsburgh seems to understand the First Amendment.”

Participants are pictured at the Aug. 25 “Stand for Justice/Kneel for Those Who Cannot” protest outside Heinz Field.

A sign at the Aug. 25 “Stand for Justice/Kneel for Those Who Cannot” protest outside Heinz Field.

COURTESY CAROLYN GIBBS

Baton said she’s met with representatives from the Steelers and Heinz Field about where the action could be taken and described them as seeming concerned but appropriately respectful. Team and stadium officials did not respond to a request for comment.

“The city has been nothing but supportive,” she added. The protest is located on city-owned sidewalks, where Baton said demonstrators feel safe and out of the way but still prominent.

Baton said last time some participants held signs, some sang or chanted, and then those that could knelt silently for the anthem. The demonstration ended shortly thereafter.

She expects Sunday’s demonstration to proceed in a similar way.

A TribLive photographer estimated that participants numbered between 35 and 40 at the Aug. 25 preseason game. Baton estimated that upwards of 50 people attended.

Carolyn Gibbs of Pittsburgh was one of them.

“I participated in the Stand-Kneel event … because I think it is important to focus attention on the injustice that many people in our country must endure because of racism,” Gibbs said by email. “I knelt that day for Antwon Rose, for Walter McMillian, and for the many others who have suffered loss of life and loss of freedom because of the way our justice system has unfairly treated people of color.”

Alisa Grishman, a disability rights advocate and activist in Pittsburgh, was also there on Aug. 25. She said she plans to attend as many of the home game demonstrations as she can this year but will miss this weekend’s to protest the appointment of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanuagh in D.C.

While Baton said interactions were minimal at the last game, Grishman said the potential for exchanges between the demonstrators and passing fans is part of the reason they’re there.

“It makes people ask us what we’re doing,” Grishman explained. “There’s a huge misconception that we do this to dishonor veterans, and I like the opportunity to explain that no, we’re supporting people of color who do not live with liberty and justice.”

Baton, a Steelers fan whose family cat was named for famed defensive end L.C. Greenwood, also stressed that she’s not protesting the anthem, the league, or the team. She said she supports the players, whether they choose to kneel or not.

“This isn’t just a fight for NFL players or for black people or for black men,” she said. “Every American has to stand up for justice. … It’s our anthem, too.”