It’s More Than The NFL — Meet The Woman Bringing The Protest Off The Field

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You've probably seen Raianna Brown without knowing it. Brown took a knee during a Georgia Tech football game last October, a few months after former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick did the same. Kaepernick explained why he did so — and so did Brown, in a massively popular tweet shared the day after Donald Trump called Kaepernick a "son of a bitch" in Alabama. A year after she took a knee, Raianna Brown explains what she's doing now, why she protested, and how she's still working toward calling attention toward racial injustice.

Inspired by Kaepernick's stand against police brutality against black Americans, Brown took a knee one year ago while performing at a Georgia Tech game in Atlanta. She made the gesture particularly because of the heartache she felt for Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old unarmed black man who was shot by white officer Betty Shelby in Oklahoma in 2016. Shelby was charged with manslaughter but the officer's attorney claimed that she opened fire on Crutcher because she feared he would attack her. A jury acquitted the officer this year, leading to nationwide criticism.

"The impact of Mr. Crutcher’s death, along with many others of its kind that year, was palpable in the black community," Brown says. "I kneeled in solidarity with Kaepernick as a statement about the unjust killings of people of color in our country."

While thousands lauded her gesture and have felt inspired to do the same, some have wished ill on Brown, hoping that she lost her position as a dancer, as well as "any scholarships" she might have had. The good news? Brown is doing well. And she makes sure no one is mistaken about the reason why she took a knee last year. "I did not kneel to disrespect the flag," she says. "Instead, I sought to question the morals of the nation it represents."

No longer on the dance team due to a hip surgery in May, the industrial and systems engineering student co-founded a dance company, RAIIN Dance Theater, which she plans to use as a platform to raise awareness about police brutality against unarmed people of color. Her company's first production, In Human, will premiere Nov. 17 at the Robert Ferst Center for The Arts at Georgia Tech.

Courtesy of Raianna Brown

The show draws from the literature of writer Toni Morrison and the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, two of her role models. The 22-year-old also counts civil rights activist Ella Baker and American dancing icon Katherine Dunham as inspiration, making it obvious that much of Brown's political philosophy comes from historical figures who refused to cower before power. Both Morrison and Basquiat highlighted America's racial animus against black people in their work. This being the same country where — since Kaepernick's protest last year — almost 223 black Americans have been killed by the police, according to The Huffington Post.

"We've become so polarized that we've forgotten that people are people."

In Human will combine Brown's creativity and observations with the wide-ranging input and contributions from her team members. It is based in the nexus of art, technology, and music, and it also includes touches from her travels as a choreographer in Italy, where she says she saw "art transcending human differences." In Human will pose a simple question to the audience: "What happens to a person who is denied their humanity?"

The production celebrates and examines black culture through dance, spoken word, trap music, jazz, and hip hop. "The show will look at connection between social justice, art, and technology, and how they intersect and interact," Brown says.

Courtesy of Raianna Brown

In Human will feature a rich ensemble of artistic work, including a 12-year-old's paintings spread on projections and a local poet's verses. For those wondering about the music, Brown promises some of the best audio treats out there. Kendrick Lamar, Miles Davis, Christian Scott, and Outkast's songs will be featured, along with tracks from Academy Award winner film Moonlight.

The art that will be shown in In Human, Brown says, is intended to leave an impression on its viewers and possibly change the way we handle race on the regular. She says she wants to "turn the mirror on the audience" and make them reflect upon themselves and society. "We've become so polarized that we've forgotten that people are people. As humans, we should be able to recognize the humanity in other people whether or not we agree with what they say."

"I think [art] could make a huge difference in how law enforcement deals with mentally ill and homeless people, how our prison system is set up or just how we treat transgender people. We've lost touch with recognizing the humanity in others," Brown says. In Human will ideally compel people to think, feel, and have those conversations.

In spite of growing criticism that Kaepernick's protest has been co-opted into a branding opportunity by those who initially refused to listen to him, Brown says she is glad to see the support for taking the knee.

"I'm a strong believer that there is a spectrum when it comes to social change. Everyone can't be exactly on the same page at all times," Brown says. "You need all of those people in order to make change. The people who have been riding with Kaepernick since day one also need the people saw somebody yesterday and decided that they wanted to support him as well."