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Interview :: Peace & War

Toni Smith: Defiance on the Court

RW Interview

Toni Smith: Defiance on the Court

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

face="Arial Narrow">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

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

"Tahoma, Verdana, Arial, sans-serif">*****

"Tahoma, Verdana, Arial, sans-serif"> "Tahoma, Verdana, Arial, sans-serif"> "Tahoma, Verdana, Arial, sans-serif">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

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,

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

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.
- More Interviews by the Revolutionary Worker

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