New Mexico State's men's basketball team rallied in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on Monday evening to peacefully protest against police brutality, to vocalize support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and to pay respects to the memory of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis last week after a white police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
"We wanted to honor and recognize the disturbing and senseless death of George Floyd," Aggies coach Chris Jans said. "I'm glad we could join a peaceful gathering to hopefully facilitate positive change."
Prominent sports figures have been vocal -- in some cases active -- in the Black Lives Matter movement by participating in peaceful protests across the United States in recent days. New Mexico State's collective decision marks one of, if not the first instance, of a college basketball team protesting together in the aftermath of Floyd's murder. (Members of Texas Tech's men's basketball team, including coach Chris Beard, were also captured on social media later on Monday peacefully marching in solidarity with their community.)
The Aggies' action was not organized or put on to be any grand attention-seeking gesture. In fact, Monday's protest came a couple days after one member of the team, junior walk-on Tennessee Owens, quietly made the decision on his own to go and protest in the city.
"Nobody knew he was doing that, and when we saw it, we said, 'OK, we need to do something too,'" NMSU junior Jabari Rice said. "We need to do our part too."
Over the weekend Jans met with his staff on Zoom to discuss joining the cause. All were in favor. Jans sent a group text to his players, asking if they'd want to take part. He ventured that more than 300 people attended Monday's rally in downtown Las Cruces. The site of the protest/vigil took place near the statue of Albert Johnson, who was the first black mayor of Las Cruces and in the state of New Mexico.
"It shows you what kind of leader we have for this program, that he supports us and sees what we go through and he's here to help bring change by being by our side," Aggies outgoing senior Shunn Buchanan said. "So that's why we're very appreciative that we see our main leader being there for us and picking us up during this hard time."
Shunn, is from Durant, Mississippi, and said when he was a teenager he could have never imagined having a life in New Mexico. He's grown to love it, in no small part because of Las Cruces' diversity and community activism. The town is a 20-minute drive to the border of Texas and sits 46 miles from the Mexican border.
"Me being from Mississippi, there's a lot of good people there but there's still racism there," Buchanan said. "It's been there since forever and it's still kind of there, and I kind of encountered some and my family encountered some since I've been living there. Just by the police's, well, when I moved from Durant to Madison, where it's predominantly white, the police were getting investigated there for targeting blacks."
Every member of New Mexico State's team was sure to wear masks to Monday's rally, as the COVID-19 pandemic still looms large in the background of what's already being referred to as the most vital and energized civil rights crusade in the U.S. since the 1960s.
"As a team we felt it was really important to be there and let people know that it is an issue and we do want change," Aggies senior Clayton Henry said. "As a team we felt it's important to be there and actually show that we want to be a part of the change and make it. It's different from saying it than doing it."
Rice echoed that message. In hearing their voices speak to their actions, there was an undeniable sense of community and personal pride in taking part of the protests.
"It's kind of tragic in a sense but also it's kind of enjoyable to see everybody coming together and trying to make a change," Rice said. "Because one of the [messages] that was on one of my posters is, if you're silent, your voice doesn't count. ... In a sense, we did what we had to do today."
For almost everyone affiliated with the program, it was their first time taking part in a rally like this. Local leaders in Las Cruces have short-term plans to do this on a daily basis, and Henry said he's open to doing it again.
"I don't see why we won't do another," Henry said.
The action from New Mexico State could spark similar rallies with other college teams around the country. Ohio State's Seth Towns demonstrated over the weekend in Columbus, Ohio. He was briefly detained before being set free and has been a prominent active college basketball player at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement.
"It was very exciting for me to see people out there protesting peacefully," Buchanan said. "You didn't just see black people out there, and that's what made me feel so good about it. There were Mexicans, whites, blacks, everyone was being one and that's how it should be so we can move in the right direction, to have change and become better."