As droves of spirit wear-clad Michigan and Eastern Michigan student-athletes marched through downtown Ann Arbor, senior defensive back Hunter Reynolds and Eastern Michigan junior linebacker Tariq Speights belted “Say His Name” through their megaphones.
A second passed, and then the names George Floyd and Jacob Blake rose from the crowd with equal emotion and equal volume.
Until Aug. 23, when Blake was shot by police in Kenosha, Wis., the response to Reynold’s and Speight’s call would have been a resounding “George Floyd.” Instead, there was confusion over which name to chant.
There have been so many names. That’s emblematic of why Speights organized Sunday’s protest.
“Just seeing all the stuff on social media, it’s to the point where I’m past being tired of seeing the videos, seeing the hate that’s in our country against people of my skin color,” Speights said.
Speights organized the protest, and though he had attended numerous protests near his home in California, the Jacob Blake shooting galvanized him into leading one of his own. He knows he has a powerful voice, and he felt that the time had come to use it to a fuller extent.
“Everyone can use their platform today,” Speights said. “There's a lot of student-athletes in the crowd right now, and we have the unique ability to reach people because of what we do. In this age of social media, we have thousands of people, as soon as we post something, eyes on that post.”
Athletes, like many of those who marched Sunday, have thousands of eyes on what they do and what they post. Speights wants to make sure they use their voices for good.
“Organizing it took a conversation with (Reynolds),” Speights said. “We just put together something, put it on social media, and reached out to our teams.”
Nearing the end of a summer that saw almost constant protests across the country, Reynolds and Speights were delighted to see how ready their teammates and fellow student-athletes were to join the cause.
Each athlete has their individual following — up to thousands on social media — but those are amplified when combined with the followings of other athletes, especially as many as marched on Aug. 30.
The number of people currently protesting social issues could be mind-numbing, but Sunday’s protest is better thought of as an extension of Speights’s philosophy for using his own voice.
“If you're able to influence one person, that one person could go influence someone else,” Speights said. “So you can really end up influencing a lot of people for change just by influencing one person.”
Almost anyone with social media accounts has seen the hashtags promoted by those whom Speights echoes. They’ve seen other names, names he doesn’t want to get lost. They’ve seen #AhmaudArbery, #BreonnaTaylor and #ElijahMcClain. They’ve seen #GeorgeFloyd, and, most recently, they’ve seen #JacobBlake.
The promulgators of those hashtags have been affecting change for months now with the goal of dismantling all forms of systemic oppression, and the change Speights is trying to inspire resembles that which people have heard about on repeat since George Floyd’s death in May.
Speights’ various motivations for organizing Sunday’s protest — increasing voter turnout and education, ending housing segregation and police brutality, promoting equality in education — may seem separate, but the purpose boils down to the words of another chant he led:
“No more hashtags.”