With one drop to the knee before a high school football game last week, Niskayuna High School senior Ismail Stewart found himself at the center of a social media maelstrom.
After he and several of his teammates and a cheerleader knelt during the National Anthem before a game against Guilderland High School, mirroring a wave of protests from NFL players that had ensued days earlier, a flood of social media comments touched every perspective imaginable.
Most were supportive. Many were negative. And some were threatening. All directed at a 16-year-old mixed-race high school wide receiver and cornerback who decided to use his platform on the field to send a message against racial injustices in America.
“It’s so much bigger than football, it’s so much bigger than the National Anthem,” he said. “It’s a huge underlying problem that has been going on for years and years and years, and people are turning a blind eye on it.”
At the root of the social media blowback is the same argument occurring at the national level over athletes’ decision to kneel during the National Anthem — a form of protest started by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was drawing attention to what he has argued is biased treatment of blacks in the criminal justice system. Supporters argue it's a peaceful and respectful form of protest, while detractors argue the protests demean the flag and military.
About 4,700 people reacted, commented on or shared an article posted on the Daily Gazette’s Facebook page after the player kneeled before last week’s game. After Stewart posted an explanation on Facebook for why he knelt, a deluge of comments in response ran the gamut from supportive to threatening.
“It was surprising to know I sparked that much hatred," Stewart said. “It brings into light the fact that there are actually people out there that believe there are no injustices going on; it’s all ponies and rainbows.”
Most of the negative comments viewed Stewart’s actions as disrespectful to the flag and military or as attention-seeking. He said it was neither. Other Facebook users said the coach and school officials should have kept them from kneeling or pulled them off the team.
But some of the comments entered darker territory than others — including death threats that Stewart said he and his family hadn’t deemed worthy of a response.
“Me and him both in New York I would love to see him [expletive] kneel in front of me,” one user wrote. “He would be 6 feet under and I’ll [urinate] on his burial site everyday.”
Stewart said he was surprised by how negative some of the comments were but that he didn’t put much stock in something someone wrote on social media. And many of the comments were supportive or fighting back against the hateful posts.
“So proud of you! Keep fighting the fight. You are much wiser than your age!” a Facebook user posted to his page. “Preach! You are a brave young man! Don’t let anyone get you down!” wrote another.
For his part, Stewart let his initial post and his quiet protest speak for themselves, refraining from engaging with the most vitriolic critics.
He said he plans to continue to press the issues he feels strongly about, adding that he has learned in the past week that any future activism will “be a long, ugly journey” — a journey he may well be in the early stages of.
“I’ve tasted how powerful I feel when I’m speaking so freely and deeply about something I truly believe,” he said. “I don’t think it’s something that I can give up. … If you truly believe in something, you speak exactly how you are thinking.”