Cason Suggs vividly remembers the first time he saw someone who looked like him on television.
Suggs, now a junior on the Missouri track and field team, was watching a nightly news show Feb. 26, 2012. He turned up the volume only to hear the anchor announce the death of Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager.
Martin had been fatally shot while walking home from a Florida convenience store.
Suggs, who is also Black, remembers the news segment ending with how "the suspect claimed that (Martin) was armed," but it "was a bag of candy." George Zimmerman, the man who killed Martin, claimed self-defense under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch coordinator for the gated community where the incident occurred. Martin had been temporarily staying there with family.
Zimmerman called the police to report Martin as suspicious — expressing concern Martin could be connected to a recent string of local robberies — and followed the 17-year-old before an altercation ended with the shooting. Zimmerman was charged and tried but was acquitted by a jury the following year.
Suggs referenced that story on Wednesday while standing on the sidelines of Faurot Field in front of approximately 600 people in the stands after Missouri student-athletes led a peaceful march for awareness of social justice issues.
At the forefront of the protest was unequal treatment of African Americans.
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"Can I be honest?" Suggs asked the crowd. "I’m a 400-(meter) runner, I run track. So when I get to the track, I know exactly what I'm about to do. In my head, I got the race planned out. I’m cool, calm and collected. When they fire the gun, I know exactly what to do to get to the finish line.
"But when I take my spikes off, and when I go into the street, I'm nervous. Sometimes I'm paranoid. And I'm doing anything I can to not look suspicious, because I've been traumatized, because too many times I've had people call the police on me for walking in a neighborhood that I guess they figured I didn't belong in."
Suggs is the president of the newly formed Mizzou Black Student Athlete Association, which spearheaded the march as the organization’s first event.
The 1.3-mile march started at the Columns on Francis Quadrangle, went past Hill Hall and down Tiger Avenue before using the tunnel to take them under Stadium Boulevard and into Memorial Stadium, where MBSAA leadership addressed the protesters.
In attendance were many of the 550 Missouri student-athletes, as well as Tigers head football coach Eli Drinkwitz, Athletics Director Jim Sterk, head men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, head women’s basketball coach Robin Pingeton and several others from the Athletics Department.
Racial injustice protests have occurred around the world since the end of May after the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Another strong wave of marches occurred after a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times on Aug. 23 while Blake was opening the door and leaning into his vehicle during an altercation with police over a domestic violence dispute.
Wednesday’s march follows the Missouri football team’s canceled practice last Friday "in order to focus on the current state of our country," according to a statement that later directly mentioned racism and police brutality.
"We are a generation that has grown up with social media witnessing senseless violence and killings come down our timelines like clockwork," Keiarra Slack, a junior Missouri women’s soccer player, said Wednesday night.
"It has become too much and it must stop. It is time for reform and it is time for new beginnings. Personally I am tired. I am exhausted of seeing my brothers and sisters killed senselessly. I want society to recognize that this is a human rights issue. It is not political."
Slack, the vice president of the MBSAA, received a standing ovation from her teammates and coaches in attendance after speaking for nearly 10 minutes.
At one point during the protest, marchers stretched nearly the entire length of Tiger Avenue yelling chants such as "No justice, no peace!" and displaying signs. Drinkwitz marched with a sign that read: "Preach and teach anti-racism."
Exactly what’s next in the MBSAA or Missouri athletics’ efforts to combat racial injustice is unknown. It’s clear that something more will happen soon, however.
Olivia Evans, public relations chair for the MBSAA, said they don’t teach you in class how to protest. From the peaceful nature of Wednesday night’s march, Missouri student-athletes have figured out at least one viable solution.
"I hope that you remember we are better together," Evans said to the crowd. "I hope that our legacy as student-athletes at Mizzou won’t be of statistics. I hope that it’ll be one of unity, one of justice and one of the betterment of our community."
The protesters also hope the awareness of social issues grows on campus and around Columbia as a result of their demonstration.
"Having that unity, having that connection and seeing how wide our Mizzou family can reach ... it’s bigger than I imagined apparently because people from all walks of life showed up," Suggs said. "To see that with my own eyes, it warms my heart."