It can be a struggle for antiracist activist-athletes in a city or even a liberal college town. Now imagine doing it in Storm Lake, Iowa, an area known as “Steve King country” after the former white supremacist congressman who was voted out of office in 2020. Alyssa Parker, hailing from the comparatively big city of Des Moines, took a knee at tiny Buena Vista University, in Storm Lake.
“I was born and raised here in Des Moines,” she said. “It’s always been good. I have both of my parents in my life. They both actually got remarried when I was young, so I was raised by four parents. It was really a small, tiny school district and I was the only Black person in my graduating class. So that experience, I think, shaped me into the person I am today. I learned a lot about my own identity as a Black woman.”
At the start of high school, a story hit the news that rocked Alyssa: the killing of Trayvon Martin. “That’s really the first moment, for me, I can vividly remember feeling this intense passion or desire to just do something. That’s where my journey began.”
After high school, Alyssa matriculated at Buena Vista, where she met an upperclassman, and they started the school’s first Black Student Union. It was at a BSU meeting during her sophomore year where the discussion turned to Colin Kaepernick. The ascension of Kaepernick as a social justice figure coincided with conversations about Jordan Edwards. He was a young Black man who had been shot and killed by police while riding in a car after leaving a party. Alyssa’s frustration after hearing about Edwards’s death boiled over. “I thought, ‘We have to do something! We can’t just keep having BSU meeting after BSU meeting. It’s just the seven of us listening to each other. We have to do more.’”
The bulk of this small BSU was comprised of cheerleaders and football players, so they decided to use the platform that they had and take a knee during homecoming.
“It was me and three or four other cheerleaders on my cheerleading squad,” she remembered. “Then there also were four Black football players, so we all took a knee at that game. It was, like, silent, dead silent. I guess I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought we had done something good and we were all happy with what we did, but the aftermath of it was downhill from that night. Afterward we went out to celebrate with our fellow classmates. But we weren’t very welcomed to the homecoming festivities anymore.”
If that Saturday’s homecoming ended with a series of uncomfortable interactions, by Monday it was bedlam. A social media beehive and local news coverage about their actions led to donors and alumni threatening to pull money from Buena Vista. The new school president called the kneelers into his office. “He really was genuinely open to hearing why we did what we did and what he could do to help,” Alyssa recalled. “That’s what it came off as, originally. We chatted, we gave him some ideas. But he also asked the question: ‘Is there another, alternative protest you guys could do?’ He knew his donors and his community weren’t very happy. As the spokesperson for the protest at the time, because I was the BSU president and it was my initial idea, he had also asked me personally if I could get the group together to find a different kind of protest. I kind of just politely told him, ‘At this moment in time, I don’t know if there’s another protest. And us conforming because people were upset kind of takes away the point of the protest.’ He wasn’t very happy about that and I get why he wasn’t happy. There were people that were outraged, not just in the school, but in the community and in Des Moines, that were reaching out to Buena Vista, saying that this was not okay. I think the pressure of the negative reactions was weighing down so hard on the president that he just kind of chickened out.”
A few days later, Buena Vista’s administration sent out an email forbidding protest, in any form, while in a Buena Vista uniform. That didn’t deter Alyssa, however. “I thought that if we stopped now, they’re winning. It would take away from what we’re doing. We had to keep protesting. But as we started to talk—we talked to our cheer coach and the boys talked to their football coaches—the boys said they were done. ‘Oh, Alyssa, we’re out. We can’t not play football. We only came here to play football. I’m sorry, but we’re done.’ I said, ‘Okay,’ and I went to my fellow cheerleaders. I had a couple girls that were on the same page as me, who also thought that we had to keep going, but a few of the other girls only went to Buena Vista to cheer and the punishment of protesting, in any form, was being kicked off the team. I tried to think of my options. I loved cheer, but I was never going to be a professional cheerleader. It wasn’t a life-or-death situation, and I felt like what I was protesting was exactly that. So I told them all, including the president, ‘I’m still planning on protesting this Saturday.’”
After Alyssa made this clear, the school president then put out another notice that kneelers would not only be kicked off the team but “sanctioned and punished in other ways,” via a “special committee.” Alyssa was pushed to the point where she resigned from the team but still showed up to every game to kneel in the stands. Even that didn’t calm the haters. “People were coming up to me threateningly in the stands. They needed police officers and extra security near me. They were getting calls to the point where the school officials were genuinely worried about my safety. It was crazy. The news was all over this story, which was putting pressure on the university president, because it was starting to go national once I resigned. BET picked up the story and Colin Kaepernick retweeted about me resigning from my team.”
The intensity of the reaction against Alyssa included being shunned by several of her professors, leading her to worry about her grades. She also had classmates who wouldn’t speak to her. Yet this crackdown on the protest ended up attracting national attention to what could have been a local story. The ACLU got involved, eventually giving Alyssa an award for her courage. “I didn’t realize this was going to be my fifteen minutes of fame, I never would have guessed that when I started doing it. My story was getting posted everywhere—it was crazy, I was losing track.”
Through protesting, Alyssa started to research and learn about the history of demonstrations and struggle in sports. “It made me realize it’s bigger than me. Even though I’m in Iowa and in a small town, this protest really did make an impact. I couldn’t let my anxiety about being safe stop me. I had to keep pushing. I’m not losing a gold medal, like other people who protest lost things. I was losing cheer. But to me, it felt like I was losing nothing compared to what I was protesting for. I think that’s when I really started to learn.” Alyssa even communicated with other athletes thinking of taking the same step, and they would be a source for one another of advice and comfort. “I just thought it was so cool that there were other people, really from all over the world, doing the same thing as me.”
Yet none of the positive attention changed the fact that Alyssa was in the land of Rep. Steve King. The day before finals of that same semester, she woke up to a racial slur written on her door in permanent marker. “At that point, it just felt like maybe this wasn’t the place for me,” she said. “I’m a sophomore in college and I can’t even go to sleep, wake up, and take my final without feeling like I was in danger. I thought, ‘Who’s going to be here to make sure nothing happens to me if my own university is throwing me to the wind?’ That’s the point where I felt like I had to transfer. Although the protest was very meaningful to me, I felt like I could still protest and make an impact at another university and also not fear for my safety. I was so distracted. I had to remember that I was also there to get a college degree.”
Alyssa was also starting to feel that the protest message was getting lost: the story had become about her and riling up this little Iowa town. In the end, Alyssa felt like she had to switch schools and transferred to Grand View University, in her hometown of Des Moines.
“I tell people all the time, I really wish I came here all four years. It’s not even much bigger—it’s still private; it’s still kind of small—but the people here are just different. I think because we’re in Des Moines, it’s just more diverse. It is more experienced and more willing to just have those conversations. We’re going to argue, we’re going to fight, I’m going to protest, and we’re going to go back and forth. I started the BSU there, and in our first year we won club of the year. They gave us money for the group. The school is just more helpful. I think they actually care about pushing the message that I was fighting my university to talk about. I think they’re more willing to help me push that forward and I think that’s critical. That was important to me in a university, to know that they would at least have my back.”
Colin Kapernick is still paying the price for his protest. But the ripples from his example continue to spread.
Copyright © 2021 by Dave Zirin. This excerpt originally appeared in The Kaepernick Effect: Taking A Knee, Changing the World, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.