RW Interview

Toni Smith: Defiance on the Court

Revolutionary Worker #1211, August 24, 2003, posted at

The RW Interview is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports and politics.

The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in the Revolutionary Worker and on this website.


Toni Smith is a Manhattanville College student and basketball player. During the past season she turned her back to the U.S. flag during the playing of the national anthem before each game in protest of U.S. government policies and the war with Iraq. She stood firm in the face of a hostile reception at some schools--waving flags, chants of "USA" and reactionaries running onto the court to yell in her face. Her teammates, the president of her college, and others stood by her.

The following interview with Toni Smith was done recently by the RW.

RW: Where are you from? Where did you grow up? And how was it that you were able to break out of the mold and begin to question and speak out against injustice? What was the role of your parents, high school environment, friends, etc.?

Toni Smith: I grew up here, in Manhattan, in Washington Heights, and then I moved to the Upper West Side. That's where I live now. How did I break out of the mold? I went to very small alternative schools. My parents really believed in those types of schools and they taught in them. These schools were more diverse than most schools I've seen. They were predominantly Black and Hispanic, and they were in neighborhoods like Spanish Harlem, further Upper West Side, around 110th St. where the population is mostly Black and Hispanic. It opened your eyes to a lot of things, but I think that because I'm mixed--I'm Black, white Jewish, and Cherokee. I related a lot to the Black and Hispanic students, and all the injustices, but I also had a white side of me that understood the other half, and could see both perspectives in a way that many of the other students didn't/couldn't. In the alternative schools our curriculum was very different, because we didn't have to take the regents. I was able to learn about Native American history, and about revolutions in Africa and around the world. And then when I went to Manhattanville, I stumbled on sociology because I needed to pick a major. I hadn't decided on a major sophomore year, and I had to pick something, so I said this sounds interesting, I'll try this, and I loved it. My professors were very, very progressive, and they really challenged all of us to question everything, and gave us whole new questions to think about: "Why is American culture the way it is?" "Why do we all crave the newest Nikes?" "Why is it that other countries are starving, while we have enough food to feed everyone twelve times over?" And once they put these questions into my head I kinda just ran away with it. It opened up all these doors--I was already open to certain things, but that just completely... I just ran away with it. I wish everyone could have something, just have one question, one class that makes them question everything and see everything in a completely different light.

RW: How did you decide you wanted to go ahead with this act of defiance? What do you feel was important about bringing out such a courageous message of resistance during your college basketball games?

TS: It's really funny because I keep hearing about it as a courageous act, but it wasn't intended to be anything like that. But I've grown to accept that it was. Actually, the actual protest that I did was brought on by a conversation that I was having with my boyfriend. He has very strong feelings about American culture and how we're very destructive to ourselves and to the rest of the world. We agree in a lot of places, but in a lot of places he's still a lot more further "left" than I am. He came to all my games. He had come to all my pre-season practice scrimmages, and we got into a discussion about the game and the national anthem. He doesn't stand for the national anthem -- his entire family do not stand for the anthem at all. So at the scrimmage he didn't stand, and he was like, in the middle of the discussion, if you feel all these things about this country, and about your past, and about what has been done to your native people in this country than why do you stand, what is it that you're standing for. I said that, well, I'm part of a team and I'm a captain, and I feel that it's my responsibility as a captain to be a leader and not disrespect the team. I felt like my standing was just in support of my team, because I never looked at the flag, I always kept my head bowed, but I stood with them. And he was like, well, is that enough for you? 'Cause what you're doing is showing support [for the flag]. And I thought about it and we argued about it for a while, and I was like no I'm not, I'm bowing my head.

Finally I stopped and thought about it, and I thought about it for the rest of the night, and I said, "Wow, you know he's right." Up until then basketball, for me, was it . I wanted to be in the NBA when I was younger, and being part of a team was a big deal. It was like a privilege not a right, as one of my coaches told me. I was thinking about what matters to me now as I've grown in college, and it became more important to do what I believe, and to be true to my conscience than to do what the rest of team was told to do. So the next game, I was so sick to my stomach from the conversation, and from all the thoughts that I had gathered, that I couldn't bring myself to face the flag, so I just quietly turned my back, and I didn't think anything of it. It was at NYU and there was a huge crowd, and I didn't think anything of it. I was just like, no I'm not doing this any more. And nobody noticed, at all. I was like whatever, this isn't anything to me, until the president of my school came to me one game, and he said that if anyone comes up to you and says anything to you about this don't worry I support you. I was like ok that's not even an issue but ok. And it just blew up.

RW: Do you feel that your protest takes on a new dimension now, after 9/11, with all that's gone down--the war on the world without end, complete with preemptive strikes, the detentions and roundups of immigrants, the U.S. Patriot Act and the emerging police state?

TS: I absolutely think that if my protest had occurred prior to September 11 it would have never amounted to what it did, and that is because, following 9/11, the U.S. had an amazing opportunity to come together, to make something really good out of something really horrible. Instead 9/11 was used against us, unknowingly to most people in this country I think, and used to fill everyone with so much hate and so much intolerance that I don't know what other group of people, what other country, could have taken such an opportunity and used it in such the opposite way.

I think that when people are overcome with fear they have no room for anything else, and they're not willing to budge, and they're not willing to hear any other perspective, because they're afraid. Actually one of my favorite quotes has recently become.... I gotta remember his name.... Hitler's second man... [Goebbels] I can never remember how to pronounce his name. He said something to the effect of: It's never the people in the country who want war, it's the leaders who determine its policies, and all you have to do to get people to follow is to put fear in their minds. Denounce the peacemakers as pacifists and as being a threat to the country, and people will follow. And this is exactly what's happening, exactly. Some people got completely sucked in to the propaganda, and some people got completely repelled and were like, wait a minute, there's something seriously wrong here.

As any lie that's told, the truth eventually comes out. Now were starting to see that, little by little, people of Arab decent are being let go from Guantánamo Bay, are being let go from these detention camps, one by one and they're saying, "Oh well, we found out that they weren't guilty." And it's been already two or three years that these people have been held innocently with no trial, with no charge. They're just supposed to be let go, and people say, "Oh, it's ok now, you're innocent, and there isn't supposed to be any kind of reparation, or anything more than an "oops, we messed up."

It's definitely been more meaningful that my protest occurred after 9/11 because I think we're getting to a very dangerous place where people are so absorbed in the propaganda that they don't realize that they're not thinking for themselves, and we're losing our civil liberties by the seconds, and that soon it's going to get to a point where we're not going to be able to rebel, we're not going to be able to fight against anything because we're going to be living in an imperialist country run by the people who now run America.

Already, there's very little chance to do anything because everything's on such tight lockdown. I'm not even going to get into retina scanning, and the crazy security that's everywhere now, and they're going to be able to keep tabs on everyone all the time. As soon as they want to rap you up because they suspect that your people might have done something, it's going to be a rap and you're not going to be able to do anything about it.

RW: A few months ago your story got really big--it got into the mainstream press and with that came all of that backlash and slander, saying that you can't mix politics with sports and all that nonsense. That must have been a pretty difficult time for you. How were you able to stay strong under such difficult circumstances?

TS: My family provided a tremendous support system for me because they have the background, because they understand, and they had nothing but pride in me. I think in some ways they were actually waiting for me to break out of my shell and show some interest, because until a couple of years ago I really didn't show it. It's like everything, I thought...but on the outside it was still like I'm a teenager.

You know, at the time I really didn't think that I was handling it with much strength. It was overwhelming at first. It was very overwhelming, because it blew up in about a week. When my coach told me that that one news reporter was going to be at the game, my heart started racing a little bit. And the next week it was every news reporter in the local area, the AP press, national, international. I had like Japanese stations coming to the games. It was the biggest jump I'd ever seen, I ever witnessed. I couldn't believe it was me. It almost felt like I was looking down on someone else. I think I went through it in a daze. I just went through it kind of numb, and answered questions. I didn't lack any emotion, but kinda the effect it was having on me, and the fact that I was dealing with it wasn't going through my mind at the time, it was just like, deal with it. People attacking you, tell them what you're about, give them a piece of your mind, because they're wrong and I'm right.

And I think the biggest thing was I never doubted for a moment that I was right. I might have, I definitely underestimated how much impact my actions were going to make. Actually some people wrote in if I was so intelligent why didn't I know it was going to be such a big deal, and I just kinda laughed it off. The negative criticism I got, I was able to shrug off as small minded, as really ignorant, and as really fearful. And I was just able to laugh off all of their negative criticism, and I got a lot of support, a lot of mail, and that boosted me up.

Of course, there were people who stopped talking to me, and there were other people who started talking to me who didn't otherwise. I think now that I look back on it I can say, wow, that was something to kind of deal with when you're trying to graduate, when you're at the brink of your senior year, but at the time it was just like do it, deal with it, or your going to start crying.

RW: Our paper has said that in times like these, everything we do matters. What do you think is the responsibility of our generation, the youth, in times like these? What message did you want youth to take away from what you did?

TS: Think for yourself. And I don't mean read the headlines and draw conclusions, from what the newspaper says. I mean go out and really inform yourself about what they mean, whether or not it's true, and really question whether or not it makes sense. And if you're reading headlines, and you have a lot of questions about how come this and this don't add up, there's probably something wrong.

I think the first step to doing anything is to really think about what it is you're being told. Think about what type of information we're being given, and the fact that a lot of it, most of it, is one-sided, and it's not true. I think, subconsciously I sent that, unconsciously I sent that message when I turned my back [on the flag]. But now I've got a lot of feedback from people younger than me and peers saying, "Wow, you really made me really question what I was doing."

Above all, I felt really good that, regardless of whether or not people agreed or disagreed with me, what I accomplished was that no matter what I brought out of people it brought something out. It brought out the best in people, it brought out the worst in people. It made people debate and it made people talk about what was going on. Because until then, I'm not going to say that my action alone did this, but until kind of the pre-war time, people were just silently going about their days in fear, confused, not really knowing what to expect, and not really knowing why things were happening.

We were just fed stories every day. One day it was Osama bin Laden, the next day Saddam Hussein. And we weren't even given a statement connecting the two of them until after the war started, like well after the war started, and people didn't even question it. So I think that is the most important thing, and I think that it's every young person who is already questioning things. If every one of us were to go out and do something that put these questions to five more people's minds, then it would be immense.

I really, I refuse to believe that it's just because we don't care. I don't think that our generation lacks the motivation, lacks any intelligence, or lacks any true sense of identity. I just think that we've been brainwashed and we've been living in a state of bliss, you know in the presence of television, and Internet, and just everything you can possibly think of to numb our brains. And it's harder now to break out of that shell, to start thinking for yourself, when you've been living in a trance for so long, but I think that's the only way it'll ever get broken....

RW: We've got to break out of the Matrix...

TS: 'Cause we're living in it.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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