Michael Lynn Sr., slowly made his way to the microphone at a public forum Dec. 20 on Lansing’s south side.

“I want to apologize to my grandson,” he said. “When I heard about this stuff happening, I thought he was at Catholic Central, having a good old time.”

Not so much. Michael Lynn III is one of four student football players — the LCHS 4 — who knelt in protest during the national anthem at football games in 2017, in the manner of national figures such as former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, to call attention to racial inequality, police brutality and other forms of injustice.

As fall turned to winter, the four students have been whiplashed by cross currents of warm support and icy blowback.

Lynn, a senior, is finishing the year at Lansing Catholic. Junior Kabbash Richards is also staying put. The other two, senior Matthew Abdullah and senior Roje Williams, have transferred to other schools.

When the Lansing City Council recognized them in a resolution Dec. 11, public response was not pretty.

To quote a handful of emails received by the Council: “Pathetic! Using minors and glorifying their actions is sickening!”… “It is a spit in the face of the nation” … “a disgrace to America and the people who had fought for there [sic] rights to be able to even play sports. God bless America” … “a laughable moment for the state of Michigan” … “as a business owner and resident, you have embarrassed our great city.”

Office manager Sherrie Boak reported a call from a constituent who was “so disgusted she got sick, and felt she got slapped across the face” and two callers who “stated a lot of things I cannot repeat.”

“Want to stop 16 unarmed black men from getting shot by cops while committing crimes?” one person wrote. “Maybe someone should teach them ‘personal responsibility.’” Among the mildest things people say to Lynn, his father and the other three players and their families is that they are grandstanding, a charge that makes Michael Lynn Jr., shake his head in amazement.

“I don’t enjoy people calling my son a thug,” he said. “I don’t enjoy having to worry about some crazy maniac trying to snipe him from across the street. We don’t need this.”

When the charge of attention-seeking was put to him directly at the forum, Michael Lynn III answered calmly and firmly.

“If you say we’re doing it for attention, you’re pretty right,” he said. “We’re doing it for the awareness. The five minutes of fame, we could do without. If we could get your awareness without having our names out there, that would be perfect.”

When Kabbash Richards knelt during the anthem at a Dec. 8 basketball game between Lansing Catholic and Williamston, Tashmica Torok, mother of a Lansing Catholic student, heard a man from the Williamston side yell, “Get your ass up.”

“The only thing I kept thinking about was people screaming at black people sitting at lunch counters to get up and get out, you don’t belong here,” Torok said. “People are acting the same way now, but I don’t understand why they don’t see it.”

In late fall, while looking for a wayward ball at a golf course, the two elder Michael Lynns, senior and junior, forgot about the ball, sat on a stump sat in the woods and had an eye-opening talk about Michael III that reminded Michael Lynn Sr. of the 1960s.

“I watched TV news and saw minorities having dogs sicced on them, hoses turned on them, being beaten by police,” Michael Lynn Sr. said at the forum. “It didn’t bother me, because it didn’t affect me. I look at it today, and I think, if I’d had the guts my grandson had, to get up and do something, say something, maybe he wouldn’t be going through this today. So I’d like to apologize.”

History of problems

With about 40 people, all of them supportive, in attendance, three of the students and their parents talked of a history of problems at Lansing Catholic at the Dec. 20 forum.

Rovonya Velasquez is the mother of Roje Williams, one of the LCHS 4.

“Roje and I and our family have been going through racism issues at Lansing Catholic since his freshman year in 2014,” Velasquez said.

In 2014, another student called Roje the N-word. “You think, this is a Catholic school, this is not going to happen,” Velasquez said.

But it happened again and again, most recently on Dec. 1 of this year.

“A kid ran into the locker room and hollered out ‘hard R,’ Velasquez said. (“Hard R” refers to the last consonant in the N-word.)

Velasquez said the offending student was suspended for a day and told to write an apology letter to Roje, who was in the locker room at the time, and read it to him directly, as part of the school’s “face process” of dealing with problems among students.

But she and other parents say the school is not doing enough to change the culture at Lansing Catholic.

“We could tell you so many stories,” Michael Lynn Jr. said. The parents speak to each other in knowing shorthand of “the Harambe incident.”

At the first football game in 2016, Roje’s junior year, a student wearing a Harambe mask was seen running around at the game. Harambe was the gorilla that was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2016.

Other students brought a sign to the Everett game with a picture of a gorilla, saying, “We cheer for Harambe.”

Michael Lynn III was newly arrived at Lansing Catholic as a star quarterback from Sexton High School. He led the team to victory against Waverly.

“We were mildly offended, we noticed it the whole time, but we were new at the school, trying to be cool and fit in,” Michael Lynn Jr. said.

Nobody objected to the Harambe sign at Waverly, but several weeks later, at a football game at Everett High School, Lansing Catholic student supporters trotted out the gorilla signs again. This time, it was obvious to the largely African-American crowd at Everett that the sign was directed at Lynn, a star player, the only African-American starter and Lansing Catholic’s first black quarterback.

“Everett students went nuts,” Lynn said.

“The Lansing Catholic administration didn’t understand what the problem was. Everett players and coaches were explaining it to Lansing Catholic.”

The Harambe signs disappeared after the Everett game.

At the Dec. 20 forum, Michael Lynn III said part of the reason he knelt for the anthem is local: he doesn’t feel he has the school’s support.

“When I’m on the field and I get called the N-word, I can’t do anything on the field, nor should I,” he said. “I go tell somebody. The first time, nothing happened. A year later, it happens, they’re still not going to do anything. This isn’t a problem that just now appeared.”

Lansing Catholic principal Doug Moore and president Tom Maloney did not return calls and emails asking for comment. Automatic messages say they won’t be available until Christmas vacation is over Monday.

Velasquez said more communication between school administrators and parents is urgently needed.

“I would like the diocese, and the school, to come out with a statement, that ‘We know there is an issue, we are looking into it and trying to figure it out, and we will not tolerate racism or bigotry or discrimination of any sort,’” Velasquez said. “Instead, they decided to punish the kids that are taking the knee, the kids that are telling there is a problem.”

Taught to shine

Representing then Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, Bishop David Maxwell said at the Dec. 20 forum that taking the knee was a demonstration of “love for the nation, just like putting a hand across the chest.”

“They’re demonstrating and you’re demonstrating, but they are not penalized for their demonstration,” Maxwell said.

“This is not a theatrical production and we cannot be spectators. The continued punishment of not starting the game is unacceptable.”

Around the country, in places like New York, Toledo and New Jersey, Catholic dioceses have warned that students who take a knee during the anthem at school events will be disciplined.

The Lansing Diocese Office of Education has directed that “all students shall stand without individual gestures during the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance at all school events … out of respect for America and the brave military men and women who protect our country, to foster unity and teamwork within the school community, to avoid politicizing school events and consistent with longstanding school teachings and policy.”

Parents of LCHS students received a letter from Maloney, Moore and Athletic Director Brian Wolcott Dec. 5.

“While we recognize that peaceful protests have an important role in society,” the letter stated, “school athletic events are not an appropriate venue.”

The letter warns that if a student athlete does not stand for the anthem, “that student will not play in the game.” If the school knows in advance, “the student athlete will not dress or accompany the team for the game.” The letter goes on to warn of “appropriate actions going forward, up to and including dismissal from the team.” Michael Lynn Jr. said his family had few ties to the Lansing Catholic community and it made sense to leave the school when “things started to unravel,” but “we won’t leave the fight until Lansing Catholic makes this right.” But Rovonya Velasquez was very reluctant to pull Roje Williams out of Lansing

Catholic halfway through his senior year, when he has never been to a public school before in his life. Velasquez said Lansing Catholic has “one heck of an education program” and she wants him to “stay grounded in faith.” In early December, Tashmica Torok’s 12-year-old son, Isaiah, told her he intended to kneel during the pledge of allegiance at Lansing’s Immaculate Heart of Mary-St. Casimir Elementary School.

She got a book about Cesar Chavez, a Catholic, from the library. “We had a conversation about how protest is super-American. It’s just what we do. We tie ourselves to things and we block parades, burn bras and Catholics are no different.”

She read about the split in the Catholic Church over Chavez and his protests for better working conditions for migrant laborers. “Both the growers and the migrants were Catholic. In the end, the Catholics aligned themselves with the Catholic social teachings and support of Cesar Chavez,” she said.

Isaiah was sent home from school for the rest of the day Dec. 22. A knuckle-rapping Nov. 21 letter from Immaculate Heart of Mary-Casimir Principal Angela Johnston to parents warned that students choosing not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance would “have their parents called and be sent home for the rest of the day.” Students who don’t stand for the pledge a second time would be sent home for “the remainder of the week.” If the child continues the behavior, “the school will receive that as a signal that the parents/caregivers of the child wish to terminate their relationship with IHM-St. Casimir and remove their child from the school.”
Torok doesn’t want to pull her kids from Catholic school but she doesn’t intend to tell Isaiah to stop.
“The policies talk about the longstanding tradition, as if Jesus Christ and his protest is not the longest standing tradition of the Catholic Church,” Torok said. “Justice is one our core values. ‘This little light of mine,’ y’all! We all know that song, whether you like it or not. We teach them to shine, wherever they are.”
Joseph Garcia, director of the Cristo Rey Community Center and a member of the Lansing Catholic board, encouraged the students to keep up the protests.
“I’m proud of you guys,” he said at the Dec. 20 forum. “I’m frustrated, and I, too, could leave, but it’s time to educate from the inside out.”
Garcia said it’s a case of “an administration not knowing how to meet a minority student where he’s at.”
“I’m part of the board, I’m not some double-O spy,” he said. “From within, I’d love to bring a minority point of view. I don’t think something quick will happen, but change has to happen.”
At the forum, he told the students to “keep up with what you’re doing. Be who you are. We get this one life. Let’s make it count.”
Kabbash Richards’ mother, Negla, didn’t say much at the forum, but her words carried extra weight.
“I went to Catholic school in Africa. I came here to this country for a better education and a better future,” she said, nodding at her son, sitting beside her on the stage.
“Maybe he will make a difference,” she said. “I want him to stay in Lansing Catholic because when you start something, you’ve got to finish it in my book. You don’t quit.”