Things came full circle for recent Niskayuna High School graduate Ismail Stewart last weekend when he joined a Black Lives Matter rally outside Schenectady police headquarters.
Stewart, 19, stood with scores of other activists as he watched Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford kneel, a symbolic gesture that the chief supportes calls for police reform.
The moment, though, was special for Stewart, because as a 16-year-old high school senior, he was the one who decided to kneel, a gesture that ultimately met with mixed reaction. Joining a nationwide movement of athletes sparked by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Stewart took a knee during the national anthem in a quiet and peaceful protest against the racial injustices of the criminal justice system before a September 2017 football game.
In 2017, Stewart received death threats; in 2020, Clifford won plaudits. And now the movement against police violence and broader systemic racism has exploded nationwide as protesters and activists take to the streets in hundreds of places across the country.
“I can only say the experience was serene,” Stewart said of seeing Clifford and other police kneel. “It felt very peaceful; I felt accomplished, almost.”
Stewart paid a heavy price for taking his stand three years ago. While a handful of teammates and a cheerleader offered their support, he faced the brunt of an ugly backlash on social media and within the broader Niskayuna community.
After The Daily Gazette posted a story about his action, thousands of people responded with comments. While most comments were supportive, many were negative and some contained outright death threats. Adults used vulgar language to criticize Stewart for what they said was an action disrespectful to the flag and military. At the time, he said his action was “so much bigger than football… so much bigger than the national anthem.”
“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,” he told the Gazette in 2017, referring to historic and institutionalized racism against black Americans.
But Stewart can now feel some measure of vindication, even as he sees there is still a long way to go on the types of reforms he thinks are necessary for black lives to truly be treated like they matter in America.
“It started back in 2017, and everyone is listening now,” Stewart said in a Thursday interview. “I feel like this is historical, this is the first time in history the entire nation is on par with this.”
Stewart is living in Niskayuna and finishing up his first year at SUNY Schenectady, where he is studying audio engineering. He plans to pursue a career in musical production and hopes to relocate to New York City after things have calmed down.
In the meantime, Stewart plans to drop by a Black Lives Matter rally in Niskayuna on Sunday and continue to participate in the activism sweeping the country.
Like other local activists, Stewart also said police like Clifford who have stood – or knelt – in solidarity with protesters, can still do much more to demonstrate their commitment to improving police and community relations and right historic wrongs.
“He should make it apparent he’s for the cause, he should join other protests. Niskayuna is a five-minute drive from Schenectady: whatever police did kneel, they should come to local protests,” he said. “A lot of people can say they are for the causes, but what exactly are they doing for this movement?”
He said he has been excited and inspired to see the peaceful protests and broader attention to the issues he has seen throughout his life. “I felt like, ‘Wow, we are getting somewhere, this is proof that (for) police officers, now, abusing your power is the wrong thing.'”
He condemned the at-time-violent resposnes in recent days but said he understands the deep well of emotion from which some of it comes. “I can’t agree at all with the violence and the looting, I definitely can’t agree with all the chaos, but I do understand people are angry, people are tired.”
Kneeling is not just a symbol of protest; now, to many, it’s also a symbol of murder. After a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, posts emerged online showing side-by-side pictures of Kaepernick and Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd. Both men were uniformed: Kaeperncik as a football player with a knee to the turf as teammates stood beside him and Chauvin as a police officer with one hand in his pocket as the man in his custody died.
Stewart said the aggressive response of police to protesters – countless videos and accounts of police shoving, tackling, teargassing and brutalizing peaceful protesters emerged all last week – only prove the point the protesters are making.
“If they are shooting people in the face with rubber bullets this is why people are protesting,” he said.
‘A long, ugly journey’
Stewart said the last three years have been a “personal metamorphosis” for him. In 2017, shortly after the game where he knelt, Stewart said he was learning that his path of activism would be a “long, ugly journey.”
The months after that football game may have been more difficult than Stewart had reckoned for. He said he faced serious mental struggles, which ultimately resulted with him being sedated under the restraint of police and nurses at Ellis Hospital.
He said at the time he knelt he was prepared for the conversation and the difficult debate but in hindsight he was not prepared for the “militant ways” that detractors came at him.
“I was 16 at the time, right now I can take that much heat, I can take that much stress,” he said. “At the time it caused an evolution in my life, I evolved, they changed my life forever. Not for bad.”
At first, he described in a recent interview, he felt like a burst of knowledge had swept over him and that he “had all the answers.” He developed a “superiority complex” and was aggressive toward people who questioned him. But that feeling gave way to overwhelming doubt, and he questioned everything from his decision to kneel to choices from his childhood.
One night around December of that year, about three months after the football game, Stewart said, he got very aggressive, and the police were called because people overheard screaming. He said the cops were nice to him but that he wasn’t nice to them. They transported him to Ellis Hospital, so he could be monitored overnight. He said he was disrespectful and fought back to the point that multiple officers and nurses were forced to restrain and ultimately sedate him.
“I ended up driving myself crazy,” he said. “I went through a very deep and dark part of my brain to understand my brain.”
He said there were other things at play but that processing the threats he faced after he knelt contributed to his mental health struggles.
“The level of stress it put me through and the level of anxiety; I wasn’t safe anywhere, it caused me to be manic,” he said. “I was getting death threats; I was getting hate mail at my house…. Back then this was the biggest thing I’ve done, the most controversial statement I’ve ever made; I was no way prepared for the mental blowback I had for any of it.”
Stewart, who had to delay his graduation as he righted his health, said he received therapy and is doing well. He moved through a trauma and found healing. He said he hopes America is able to do the same. “If we can pass trauma through the generations, let’s do the same for healing,” he said.