'I wanted to see what it meant to protest'

They pulled out masking tape and a black permanent marker and began to write names on the strips they pulled from the roll.

The players on the Cal women's basketball team woke up Saturday morning in Long Beach to the news that back in Berkeley, three cardboard cutouts of African-Americans in nooses had been hanged in effigy on the Cal campus.

While campus officials worked to determine both who was behind the act and their intent, the players gathered after their shootaround. The team's plan was to wear black shirts with the phrase "I Can't Breathe" Sunday at home before a game against Louisville. But the Bears felt compelled to act immediately.

"These images may have been to bring awareness to injustice, or they may have been an act of cruelty; either way, they elicited strong emotions from everyone," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said in a statement after the game, a 58-56 loss in overtime. "The entire team came to me. We met for 45 minutes about how to best use our voices. As a group, they decided to wear shirts that brought attention to lives lost -- recently and throughout history -- and to stand and say that black lives matter; all lives matter."

Berkeley has been a hot spot for protests over the past two weeks, since the news that there would be no indictment in the death of Eric Garner, who was allegedly selling loose cigarettes in New York and died while officers were trying to arrest him.

Point guard Brittany Boyd and associate head coach Charmin Smith have walked in those protests.

Boyd said she just keeps thinking about her own family.

"My father, my brother, any of my uncles or my cousins, those men who have an impact on my life, and what if that was them?" Cal's senior point guard said.

Boyd had never been to a protest before the first night in Oakland after news that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the death of Michael Brown.

"I wanted to go and see what it meant to protest," Boyd said.

Smith hasn't been sleeping well. She has watched the media coverage surrounding the Garner case, literally stood from a distance as protests sprung up around the country, and she felt worse by the day.

"We've had a lot of conversations," Smith said. "We were traveling to play in Kansas [last week] and I was in the airport, seeing things on CNN and on Twitter, and I was really frustrated that I hadn't done anything and I wasn't involved."

So when Smith arrived home from the Bears' road trip Monday, on the heels of a painful loss to the Jayhawks, she said she unpacked her suitcase, took a short nap and said a prayer.

"And then I decided to get up and see what this is all about," said Smith, who played on Final Four teams at Stanford in 1995-97 and played three WNBA seasons.


A photo posted by Charmin Smith (@21charmin) on

Smith headed into the streets of Berkeley, which has been a protest mecca for more than half a century, with the intent of making her voice heard. She spent four hours on the streets, walking, chanting, listening to speeches, and at one point, standing toe-to-toe with police in riot gear. Smith seriously considered joining protesters who were blocking a major Bay Area freeway, but did not.

Smith said in a Facebook post that she was unable to speak when she first joined the protest, nearly moved to tears.

"I don't know the words for it," Smith said last Wednesday after she participated in protests that continued nightly for nearly a week and received nationwide attention as protests turned violent in some areas. As of last Thursday night, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that more than 200 people have been arrested over six nights of protests in Oakland and Berkeley.

"It's hard to say it was 'good,'" Smith said. "It was fulfilling, and it was what I needed to do."

Boyd was by her side for much of the night, player and coach walking together for hours.

"Stuff started to get hectic and [Smith] said, 'All right, it's time for you to go home,'" Boyd said. "But it very meaningful for me to be out there with her."

Gottlieb said players and coaches have been talking about the Garner case, as well as the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson and its resulting protests, for the past few weeks.

"We are a family, and we have regular discussions about what's going on socially," Gottlieb said. "I don't tell them what to think. As an educator, I think it is part of the student-athlete experience to think about stuff like this. I want to ask them what's going on, make sure they are aware of things. It's more than about just their sport. I think if they are engaged and active, that's a really positive thing."

When Boyd texted Smith last week and said she was coming to join her in the protest, however, Smith admitted her first reaction was "no, no, no."

"But after I realized she was already coming, I said, 'OK, come find me.' I wanted her with me. And we walked the whole way together," Smith said. "I was definitely protective of her. If she was out, I wanted to make sure things were peaceful and she was not putting herself in any kind of danger."

Boyd said she saw other Cal athletes from the football and track and field teams out among the protesters as well.

"Berkeley is a liberal school, and there are always a lot of protests, but the whole city of Berkeley is like that," Boyd said. "I've been influenced by that, but I just want to find the ways that I can be impactful and step out of the box."

The players in the Cal program have a penchant for campus activism. Gottlieb recalled former player Eliza Pierre calling her to ask if she could participate in a campus protest following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and that she wanted to wear black to practice that day.

"I told her that I appreciated that she wanted to stand for something, but that we were a team and we had our colors and she had to discuss it with her teammates," Gottlieb said. "I walked out to practice and they were all wearing black, and I almost started crying."

Former guard Mikayla Lyles spearheaded a program to support the inclusion of gay and lesbian athletes on campus last year during the team's rivalry week games against Stanford. Lyles also participated in Monday night's protests.

"I trust our players to express themselves in ways that are proactive and productive and not destructive," Gottlieb said. "Our players know they represent us all the time, whether it's at a protest, or in class or at church or at the movies."

Gottlieb said she did not expect Smith or even Boyd to ask her permission to participate in something they believed in.

"I want them to be safe, in a way that a parent would," Gottlieb said. "Brittany knows to make sure to stay away from anything violent. She knows to remove herself from anything that would be negative in any way."

Boyd said she had the same conversation with Gottlieb and her mother.

"They both just told me to be safe," Boyd said. "That was my parents' message to me. That I was there for the protest, not for the extra stuff. I don't want people to see Brittany Boyd out there' doing something I shouldn't be involved in. I do need to be careful. But I was raised to be heard and to speak my mind."

Smith said she was not close to the violence that occurred in Berkeley that night, including incidents of looting, destruction of property at some local businesses and physical confrontations with police. Thirteen officers have been reported injured since Saturday night, and there have been multiple reports of injuries to protesters and media members covering the protests.

"I wanted to make sure that I was participating in something that was peaceful," Smith said. "At one point I was standing face to face with a cop, and he got no disrespect from me and as a result, I was treated the way I wanted to be treated."

Smith said she was standing in front of Berkeley police headquarters at one point during the night, directly in front of a line of officers, when a girl from behind her threw a plastic cup in the direction of the police.

"I turned around and said, 'No, that's not what we are about,'" Smith said.

And a while later, as she was standing in front of a gathering on Shattuck Avenue, a speaker got up, began to advocate violence against the police and was shouted down by the crowd.

But, Smith admitted, she "really wanted to get to the freeway," where protesters were blocking traffic.

"I could tell the cops were taking a hard line and it was pretty risky," Smith said.

She allowed for the possibility she could be arrested.

"But I was peacefully protesting," Smith said. "My grandfather marched with Martin Luther King, and he was hit upside the head and it left a bald spot on his head his whole life. Sometimes you have to protest and I'm not comparing those experiences, but I would not be ashamed in being arrested for doing that."

The experience left Smith feeling like she should do more. She is not sure what that is yet.

"I feel like it's not enough, and I've got to figure out what else to do. It was like, 'OK, what are we going to do the next night and the next night after that?' I don't see how that results in change," Smith said. "I just can't sit because my day-to-day life is fine. I'm fortunate and I make a good living, but I can't act like the world is fine."

Boyd, meanwhile, believes this experience is part of being a leader -- on the court and off.

"This is a way of showing leadership, showing some type of a voice and standing up," Boyd said. "I want to set an example for my teammates and my family and show them that this is something that I value."