Jelani Williams is seizing the moment to protest systemic racism

Penn basketball guard Jelani Williams has been going to protests, making his voice heard on campus, and promoting messages of ‘love and respect.’

Jelani Williams escaped the tear gas but not the tears.

The Penn basketball guard was at a protest near the White House on June 1 when his mother, who had a foreboding feeling while watching TV at home, texted him to get out of there. So he did—just a few moments before federal law enforcement officers fired rubber bullets and chemical gas at peaceful protesters to clear a path for President Donald Trump  infamous photo shoot in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. 

Jelani Williams holds up a fist of solidarity while seated next to a painting of singer, actor, athlete, and political activist Paul Robeson.
Jelani Williams next to a painting of singer, actor, athlete, and political activist Paul Robeson. (Image: The Pennsylvania Gazette)

“It was pretty draining,” says Williams, a Washington, DC, native and rising senior at Penn. “As I walked home with friends, I was thinking about how I didn’t even know what they were doing it for since the curfew hadn’t happened yet. When I got home and saw it was for Trump trying to get a picture, I started crying honestly. It didn’t make sense to me why something like that could be allowed to happen.”

But it hasn’t stopped him from attending other Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the nation since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. If anything, it’s led to him becoming an outspoken University student leader on issues of systemic racism, police violence, and Black history education. “The next day,” Williams says, “I woke up feeling really energized and determined to make as much change as I could within my own sphere of influence and trying to push Penn to do the same thing.”

College sports has been one sphere in which the movement has taken shape in recent weeks, as Black athletes, often leaders on a field or court, have swept aside the old “stick to sports” mantra to publicly air their grievances.

“The power dynamic within college athletics has to be addressed,” Williams says. “Until real change comes, it’s important for us to use our platforms to speak about it—and if it gets to that point, really take a stand behind something.”

Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.