By Mike Shane
Detroit’s Denby High School football team received the People’s Spirit of Detroit Award for taking a knee during the national anthem prior to a semi-final game and then standing strong in the face racist abuse from their opponents’ fans. The award was presented at the 17th Annual Detroit MLK Day Rally on Jan. 20, 2020 at the Historic St. Matthew’s and St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church and was an expression of deep support and admiration for Denby High football players from the Detroit community.
On No. 23, 2019, Denby High faced Almont High School in the Division 5 semi-finals football game that took place at Central High School in Walled Lake, Mich., a neutral location. Almont High School is located in Almont, Michigan, in a small community about 40 miles north of Detroit that is 99% white, while Detroit, where Denby is located, is 80% African-American.
During the national anthem prior to the start of the game, many members of the Denby High School football team courageously took a knee, to protest racial profiling, police brutality, and social injustice in Detroit, according to Denby head coach Deon Godfrey, in an interview in the Michigan Chronicle. Prior to the game, Godfrey had a conversation with his players on what they were about to do.
“My kids understand why they were taking a knee”, said Godfrey. “It’s not just because that’s the hot thing [to do]. They actually understand, and we talked about that before I allowed them to take a knee.”
What immediately followed was a barrage of racial epithets hurled at the Denby players from the Almont spectators in the bleachers, according to coach Godfrey.
“Our cameraman is white and was filming near some Almont fans,” Godfrey said in the Detroit Free Press. “During the national anthem, he overheard them saying: ‘Look at these [N-words] taking a knee and they don’t even know why they’re doing it,’ and they kept going.”
The game was halted by the referees with three minutes left because of excessive personal foul penalties. There was a huge discrepancy in penalties with Denby receiving 16 penalties for a total of 174 yards while Almont received only eight penalties for a total of 26 yards. Just before the game ended, according to Godfrey in an Mlive interview, a referee “said to me, ‘You people always have a problem when you lose,’” Godfrey said. “I said, ‘You people?’ And I said, ‘Good job, ref. Good job.’ The next thing I know, he ended the game.” Almont won, 36-8.
The Denby players had to go up a ramp to leave the field where a group of hostile Almont fans was standing with sheriff deputies who did nothing to keep them from menacing the Denby team. Some pushing and shoving ensued and a Denby player was hit in the head by a full can of pop which caused a minor injury.
Denby’s white coaches also were being called “wiggers,” Godfrey said, and “grown men and women started spitting on our kids as they walked up the ramp. They were throwing food, cups and whatever.”
“They called my student trainer a little monkey and they were saying: ‘Who let them off their leashes?’ ” Godfrey said. ” ‘They need to be on a leash. They never should have been here in the first place.’ ” –Detroit Free Press
Even the principal of Denby High School was spit at.
According to the Metro Times, one white woman, Kathy Sagert, wrote on Facebook, that her children “were appalled by the racist remarks and actions of the Almont fans from the very beginning of the game.”
“They witnessed hatred and racism at its best. They were so shook after the game. Any adult who spits on a kid should be arrested,” Sagert said.
Much of the local media reported the incident at the end of the game in isolation, suggesting that the Denby players were to blame, while failing to mention that the racist and belligerent behavior of Almont spectators started before the game even began. In the usual fashion, the victims of racist harassment and assault were blamed while the perpetrators were presented as the victims.
In fact, the Sheriff of Oakland County, where the game was played, began an investigation of Denby football players, and not the Almont fans, even though the only known injury was to a Denby player hit in the head by a full can of soda. More than forty statements from Denby’s football team and school staff have been provided to the Oakland Sheriff’s department by the Detroit Public Schools Community District detailing the racist behavior of Almont fans. According to DPSCD Police Chief Ralph Godbee, Jr., the statements are “remarkably consistent”, meaning that they are truthful and accurate.
In early December, DPSCD Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti issued a statement rejecting a request from Almont Community Schools Superintendent Dr. William Kalmar for a joint statement:
“Unfortunately, the statement released by the Almont superintendent continues to demonstrate a lack of understanding about race in this country and state. It is disappointing that high school black student-athletes would be blamed for their reaction to racist hate-spitting, racial slurs, and objects being thrown at them. It is irresponsible to identify ‘blocks in the back’ and football penalties as the cause of the unrest that occurred after the game. Let’s get this straight-teenagers-high school student-athletes — who are black — were spit on, called racist names, and had objects thrown at them after the game. Period. Young men were disrespected by adults-who were white — and in turn our students were rightfully angry. They were standing up for themselves, their teammates, and in some cases their coaches and administrators. The Almont superintendent reached out to me to state that he was condemning any and all hateful actions. I respected that. However, I would not agree to, and will not agree to, issuing a statement that in essence states that there were bad actors on both the Almont and Denby sides. I will not equate hate and responding to hate as equal acts. In fact, buried in the Almont superintendent’s statement he acknowledges what we have been saying from the beginning-that there was evidence of hateful acts occurring from Almont fans (although he isolates it to one fan). To be clear, this is not about making this issue about race-the issue is about race. When student-athletes are called the n-word from white fans it’s about race. Moving forward, we would like to see the Michigan High School Athletics Association work with Detroit Public Schools Community District to ensure more Detroit fields are used for later playoff games, that we actively recruit and develop more diverse referees, that playoff games are officiated by crews who work in the leagues teams play in, and that referees are trained in issues of power, privilege, and race, and use their authority to dismiss any and all fans that use racist chants, language or threats.”
Denby supporters protest Almont, form coalition
The following week, the Almont football team went on to play in the Division 5 state championship game at Ford Field in Detroit where they lost to Lansing Catholic Central. About 30 supporters of Denby were outside protesting the presence of the Almont football team and denouncing the racist treatment of Denby’s football team and staff as Almont supporters strolled into the stadium. The protesters were greeted with a heavy police presence and corralled behind barricades. Alicia Jones, a Denby supporter, managed to get into the stadium and sit amongst the Almont fans, much to their chagrin. She denounced their behavior at the Denby-Almont game, asking “What are you gonna do? You gonna spit on me? You gonna call me the ‘N’ word? You gonna call me monkey? Come get a leash, like you did those poor kids?” She took a knee during the national anthem and was escorted out of the stadium by Detroit police.
Denby supporters met on Dec. 9 at the weekly Moratorium Now Coalition meeting and formed a coalition to demand that Almont fans be charged with federal hate crimes and that Almont High School be designated as a hate crime school and forfeit all federal funding. Other demands included a public apology from Almont Board of Education; an investigation by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission; professional counseling for all Denby victims; an officiating review by the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA); the suspension of Almont from MHSAA for five years; and full college scholarships for all Denby players and student aids.
Several coalition members attended the Dec. 17, 2019 DPSCD Board meeting and demanded that the Board do more to defend the Denby students. Speakers pointed to the history of racism in schools in the U.S. and the need to organize and stand up to it. Two days later, the DPSCD Board responded by issuing a statement that stated, in part:
The Detroit Public School Community District Board of Education remains extremely supportive of Denby High School’s administration, coaches and student athletes… We also want to go on record in appreciation of the prompt and in-depth work to manage this situation led by Denby High School’s principal and a number of Denby school leaders. The Board and the Superintendent will continue to leverage their networks, maximize and exhaust resources to protect Denby students who may face allegations following the sheriff’s investigation.
Racist incidents on the rise
The racism experienced by the Denby High School football team and support staff is not an isolated incident nor at all unexpected in the U.S. in this period. The increase in racism occurred as a reaction to the election of Barack Obama, the U.S.’s first African American president. Liberal pundits lauded the emergence of a post-racial society even as racist incidents began occurring with increased frequency and the right-wing Tea Party emerged to challenge Obama’s policies. The Democratic Party inadequately addressed the economic woes facing many workers in the U.S. and instead imposed a program of increased austerity while bailing out the banks. This emboldened the racists and paved the way for the election of the unabashedly racist, misogynist, hateful Trump as president, who has deepened the austerity, eroded workers’ rights, attacked the environment in every way, and further weakened civil rights protections for many oppressed groups while vastly increasing the Pentagon’s budget. In June 2019, armed Nazis actually marched at Motor City Pride in downtown Detroit under police protection!
What is needed is the emergence of a broad movement of all workers, uniting young and old, all nationalities, peoples of color, genders, sexual orientations, and people with and without disabilities to beat back systemic bigotry, austerity, climate change, and war, and to fight for a better world where taking care of human needs is the paramount objective. It is in this spirit that the Detroit MLK Day Committee presented the People’s Spirit of Detroit Award to the courageous youth and future leaders at Detroit’s Denby High School.