Elerson G. Smith has driven past Cup Foods on East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis many, many times in his life.
His childhood home is five minutes from the Third Precinct in Minneapolis.
The death of George Floyd in police custody May 25 and the subsequent civil unrest across the nation — with Smith’s Minneapolis neighborhood at its epicenter — is fresh on the mind of Northern Iowa’s preseason all-American defensive end.
“Initially when I saw the video of George Floyd being murdered I was upset,” Smith said. “It hurt a lot it had happened just within my neighborhood. Just with that made it very real for me in that aspect.
“I was in Cedar Falls when it happened. Once all the rioting and protesting started happening, initially I was shocked. I was like wow, they are tearing down everything that I’ve driven by millions of times.”
Smith is one of four Minneapolis-area minority student-athletes on UNI’s football roster along with Jevon Brekke, Omar Brown and Isaiah Weston, who lives in the northwest suburb of Albertville.
Although upset, Smith, a psychology major, took time to reflect. He carried on conversations with friends and family.
“Those were really healthy and needed,” Smith said. “Sometimes an uncomfortable conversation about it can do a lot more than a tweet or a Facebook post.
Smith also returned home and participated in a peaceful march in downtown Minneapolis that eventually crossed the Interstate 35 Bridge.
“That was great,” continued Smith. “It was very empowering. … It showed the heart of Minneapolis because it was more than 10,000 people marching for miles. We were saying our part and letting people know that injustice won’t be stood for any longer, that black lives do matter, and if you can’t get that through to your heart we are going to keep letting you know.”
Smith believes the message of those peaceful protesters is finally starting to be heard across the nation. He has added his voice to the movement on a limited basis over social media and has taken time to absorb a lot of information.
“I’ve posted on social media, but I think there are many people out there with great voices, bigger voices than mine and I’ve tried to listen to them and promote their voices,” Smith said.
Smith was one of 25 minority athletes on UNI’s spring roster of more than 80. Since the overwhelming majority of the Panther’s roster is white, he anticipates there will be some uncomfortable but productive conversations with teammates.
“I think they will be needed, and I feel like our team will respect and understand that,” Smith said. “We can preach all we want about Black Lives Matter, but until maybe someone such as a young white man expresses their voice about the injustices going on that will really take on more notice in their communities more so than us.
“If it is my voice, it will seem like that is something we should be part of, but when somebody who may not come from the same background starts preaching and starts impacting people around their lives that may not support the Black Lives Matter movement … that will be huge for their voices to be heard.”
Smith said he immediately heard from UNI head coach Mark Farley, defensive line coach Bryce Paup and Stacia Eggers, UNI’s associate athletic director for student services, when the events of May 25 unfolded.
“I respected and appreciated those calls a lot because they were genuine, and their messages were along the lines of where they should be,” Smith said.
As a 6-foot-7 African-American man, Smith feels he stands out naturally.
UNI track and field athlete Darius King, a large man who threw a shot put more than 19 meters to win the Missouri Valley Conference indoor track and field championships this winter, feels the same.
Despite living in a community not as diverse as their hometowns — King is from Moline — both athletes say their overall experience while living in Cedar Falls the past four years has been good.
“UNI has treated me very respectfully,” King said. “I know with everything that is happening in the world, and there is so much happening, myself, I’ve never experienced anything bad like that at UNI.
“There are sometimes where I feel a little, I guess you could say discriminated against because the color of my skin, but at the same time I have not experienced anything terrible I’d say.”
Smith echoed King, but both say the university, like the country and world, should become more inclusive.
“I have not experienced any discriminatory remarks to my face or anything along those lines,” Smith said. “That being said, any person can learn from this and try to find a way to be more inclusive towards African Americans, because we know America has been built up with racism in it.
“We’ve got to be the generation of people to try and disband racism and move on to a better world for our kids and a better future.”
King, who has participated in vigils in Cedar Falls since May 25, agrees.
“Things are definitely changing, and hopefully for the better,” King said. “People are really tired of being ignored, and it was time for people to stand up and make a statement.
“I’ve tried to get my voice out there somehow, some way.”
One way UNI’s minority athletes have made their voices heard is in annual meetings with UNI director of athletics David Harris.
In each of his four years in Cedar Falls, Harris has brought UNI’s student-athletes of color into a forum to discuss concerns and ways things can be done better at UNI.
While King and Smith say their experiences have been positive, it hasn’t been that way for all.
“It hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies,” King said. “In those conversations, I’ve heard athletes say they’ve felt like, maybe not they were not discriminated against, but targeted. That is where we need change.”
On Wednesday, the Missouri Valley Conference released a YouTube forum on race and social justice that included Harris.
Harris’ comments were poignant.
“African-American people cannot solve racism,” Harris said in a small clip of the video. “We just can’t. Certainly not on our own, we need help. In many cases, in all cases, it is not a problem we created. It’s not a problem that we asked for. … We didn’t create it. We don’t want it. We want to get rid of it.
“But it is not something we can dictate. It is not something we can make happen. We need the cooperation of our white brothers and sisters and our brown brothers and sisters. It’s everybody sticking up for just the idea that we are all human beings. We are all deserving of respect and we all want this country to live up to its ideals.”