JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A week ago, the East Tennessee State University men’s basketball team knelt during the national anthem before their game. The controversial stance has brought up discussions of previous incidents of protest on campus, and the local Black community defends the team.

Bobbie Smith served during the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1973, serving in the United States Air Force ranked as an E-4 Sergeant. She told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais that she is proud of the team for protesting and defended them to those who thought the stance was disrespectful.

“Well, number one, they have shouted it from the highest mountaintop that this is not in disrespect for the American flag. This is in kneeling for what our race and colored people have went through – oppression, segregation and everything else,” Smith said. “They need to understand this, I mean, I don’t see how much more you can explain it to them that we’re not disrespecting the flag when we take a kneel, we’re drawing attention onto the oppression and things that we have gone through and still are going through.”

As a veteran herself, Smith said she thinks the team did nothing disrespectful to other veterans, the flag, the national anthem or the country.

In fact, she had a message to other veterans and members of the armed forces who disagree.

“We served our country, and those that fought for freedom fought for the things that we could express ourselves in any way that we wanted to. I mean that’s our freedom of speech, and the thing I feel about it is you say you fought for freedom of speech and stuff, but you can’t just pick what freedom you fought for. If you fought for freedom, you fought for freedom,” Smith said.

“Everybody has their opinion – that’s their Constitutional right. So, you just can’t go and just pick certain kinds of freedoms that you say that you’ve fought for. When you went into the United States military, they told you you’re fighting for freedom and they didn’t give you an option of what freedom you’re fighting for,” Smith said.

Following the basketball game, Rolling Thunder Chapter Four threatened to remove the POW/MIA chair from ETSU’s William B. Greene Jr. Stadium if football players knelt at the season opener against Samford on Saturday.

Smith said this was the wrong this to do.

“My thing is when they said they would take the POW/MIA chair away, what good is it doing you to take the POW/MIA chair away? All you’re doing is taking the remembrance of those people that suffered during the war, that’s not going to bring any attention to the kneeling or whatever you’re upset about. Let the POW/MIA chair sit there for what it’s for,” she said.

On Monday, a group of panelists gathered virtually to discuss the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements. During the discussion, panelists compared the men’s basketball team kneeling to a previous incident on campus.

In 2016, a white student dressed in a gorilla mask handed out bananas to African American students at a peaceful BLM protest on ETSU’s campus.

One of the panelists to discuss the two incidents was Johnson City Police Chief Karl Turner.

“Taking a knee is a freedom of expression and that’s Constitutionally protected form of communication. The incident with the gorilla mask – and I don’t know a whole lot about it because I was not part of the charging agency that charged that gentleman with that incident, so I don’t know a whole lot about what took place there other than what I’ve read – but that struck me more as a form of hate speech than it did just a freedom of expression or a First Amendment right and certainly, I think that that went to court and that was adjudicated, but again, I think the intent was certainly different and it’s hard to compare the two,” he said during the call.

Smith, who was not on the panel, later told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais that the two incidents were completely incomparable.

“When he came with the gorilla suit, it was a disrespect to people of color because of the comparison they give to the gorilla suit and the people of color – especially African Americans. Taking a knee to me is not offensive, but you have to understand point-blank it’s who’s doing the protesting. That’s what it all boils down to – who is doing the protesting? You can get away with protesting if you’re certain individuals, but if you’re other individuals, you can’t get away with it,” Smith said.

ETSU student Amyre Cain said during the call that the men’s basketball team had every right to peacefully protest in the manner in which they did.

“When the pandemic first hit, we went to the African American museum in Washington D.C. and on the second level, we see that we as African Americans have fought in every single war, and we still were not free,” Cain said. “Now, let’s be honest here – mentally, we’re not free as well, so taking the knee, I respect them for doing that because the national anthem does not support us, and it’s kind of like our own country doesn’t support us, so I understand why our players took it.”

Local activist Sierra Gilmer agreed.

“I think that it was really good. I think I knew that it was going to have a lot of bad backlash because I thought that people wouldn’t really understand or they would take it the wrong way or think that they were being disrespectful, but I thought that it was very honoring, the way that they did it,” Gilmer told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais. “I think that they could have done it in a lot of different ways that could’ve made it worse, but I think that overall they did it in a very respectful way and I was really glad to see them take a stand.”

Gilmer and Smith added they were shocked at how local elected officials, local leadership and community members were outraged by the peaceful protest last Monday.

“It really surprised me, just because all the protesting that went on, I thought that there had been a lot more people that understood why they would do that,” Gilmer said. “I think that you really just have to realize that you can still support your country and support the flag and the veterans and everybody, while still realizing and acknowledging that there are problems going on and that there are people that are hurting and that our country isn’t perfect, but that we are working to make those changes.”

“Our representatives were upset about it. I’m very surprised in one of our representatives that stated that, because it surprised me that they would say something like that,” Smith said. “Our representatives know what the kneeling is for, they’re just jumping on a bandwagon, you know, ‘I’m going to say this, I’m going to say that, because everybody believes in it,’ and my stance to that is and to them is: you’ve got an election coming up.”

Gilmer, a local activist, explained that no disrespect was intended.

“To me, it meant a lot. It meant power and equality and it showed that my community and, you know, the school and my community, is taking a stand and supporting not just me, but every other little Black boy that is out there is looking up to these men and saying, ‘wow, they support me and they know that my life matters.’ And I think that it just really goes to prove that just a little bit of support can go a long way for a lot of people, and there’s a lot of kids that are going to be up in the next generation, and we look up to the people that are older than us – the people who are athletes and teachers and everybody in the school – we look up to them and every little kid that’s younger than me looks up to them. So I think it means a lot to a lot of people to see them taking a stand and showing what they believe in. It’s not meant to be disrespectful to the flag or to veterans in any type of way, it’s really just to show that there’s a lot of change that needs to be made, but if we come together that anything can happen and that it’s not to disrespect anybody, it’s not to disrespect our country, we love the country, but there’s change and we realize that and we’re working very hard to make that change happen.”

Sierra Gilmer

Watch the full BLM panel discussion here: