Before trotting onto the field for their pregame introductions Sunday, five St. Louis Rams players stood with their hands raised in a show of solidarity and compassion for Ferguson protesters. The St. Louis Police Officers Assn. soon responded by labeling the move offensive and calling for the players to be disciplined.
"I just think there has to be a change," tight end Jared Cook said after the Rams' 52-0 rout of the Oakland Raiders. "No matter what happened on that day, no matter how the whole situation went down, there has to be a change."
Coach Jeff Fisher said he had not been aware the gesture had been planned by the players, all of them black.
Wide receivers Tavon Austin and Kenny Britt came out together first, with the move obscured by a smoke machine in the upper reaches of the Edward Jones Dome. Cook, Stedman Bailey and Chris Givens then came out and stood together with hands raised in the fog.
Some witnesses said Michael Brown had his hands up before Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot him Aug. 9. Brown, a black 18-year-old, had been unarmed. His body lay in the street for hours.
A grand jury decided last week not to indict Wilson for killing Brown, a decision that led to sometimes-violent protests in St. Louis suburb and nationwide. Wilson resigned from the police force Saturday.
"I don't want the people in the community to feel like we turned a blind eye" to Brown's death and its aftermath, Britt said. "What would I like to see happen? Change in America."
The St. Louis Police Officers Assn. bristled at the "hands up" move, saying in a statement Sunday night that it was "tasteless, offensive and inflammatory."
The players should be disciplined, and the Rams and NFL should "deliver a very public apology," the association said in the statement, posted online by KDSK.
"Now that the evidence is in and Officer Wilson's account has been verified by physical and ballistic evidence as well as eyewitness testimony, which led the grand jury to conclude that no probable cause existed that Wilson engaged in any wrongdoing, it is unthinkable that hometown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproven over and over again," association business manager Jeff Roorda said in the statement.
Evidence presented to the grand jury was full of contradictory information. It is still unclear exactly how the confrontation between Wilson and Brown unfolded.
"I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their 1st Amendment rights," Roorda said in the statement. "Well I've got news for people who think that way, cops have 1st Amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours. I'd remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser's products. It's cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do."
During Sunday's game, after Tre Mason scored on an 8-yard run to make it 45-0 in the fourth quarter, he and Britt raised their hands together.
The protests "touched a lot of us. It added fuel to our fire," Mason said.
Cook said players have been too busy to go to Ferguson, plus "it's kind of dangerous down there and none of us want to get caught up in anything."
"It takes some guts, it takes some heart, so I admire the people around the world that have been doing it," he added.
About 75 protesters gathered across the street from the stadium during the game's second half as about 30 police wearing riot gear watched from a distance. Protesters chanted "Hands up, don't shoot!" ''No justice, no football!" ''This is what democracy looks like," and "We're here for Mike Brown."
James Weaver of St. Louis was among the protesters outside the stadium and argued with two fans leaving. They were separated by police.
"People don't understand what this is about," Weaver said. "This is about a young man lying on the street for four hours. People are mad."
The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a civil investigation into the Ferguson Police Department to see whether it has a pattern of using excessive force or racial profiling. The Justice Department is also conducting a criminal investigation of Wilson, but experts say a federal indictment is unlikely because the government would have to prove that Wilson intentionally violated Brown's civil rights.