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Mendocino basketball teams protest to wear "I can't breathe" shirts

FORT BRAGG - "I can't breathe." Three of the final words spoken by Eric Garner, a black man in New York City allegedly choked by a police officer this July...and now the rallying cry of a national protest against police brutality. 

This December, that protest turned local when players from Mendocino’s basketball teams were asked not to wear shirts bearing those three words. Monday, our cameras were there for a peaceful protest in front of Fort Bragg High School.

“I put on the shirt because I believe even though police brutality might not be prominent in this community it is definitely in other communities,” one player from the Mendocino’s girls varsity basketball team said.

Players began wearing the shirts at practices in early December, but were asked to stop heading into a tournament. All but one of the men's varsity team agreed to leave the shirts at home, allowing them to participate in the games. The girls took a different route, using the situation to keep the conversation going and advocate their first amendment rights. 

“Youth can be intelligent to and come up with their own ideas. It's not just our parents telling us what to do,” another teammate said.

Statements from Fort Bragg High say they asked players not to wear the shirts for reasons of safety. Fort Bragg faculty were unable to comment Monday and our cameras were not allowed in the gymnasium, but Ray West, a teacher within the district, said he was disappointed with the schools decision. 

“I don't think that this single action is representative of us as a community and our values as a community. I believe in free speech. I believe in the constitution. I believe in those kids’ rights to speak freely,” West said.

As the peaceful protesters stood on these steps, they were asked if their motives for protesting were related to the shooting of local Sheriff Deputy Ricky del Fiorentino this past March. The players clarified this is in no way against their local law enforcement. 

“I personally new Ricky and my mom was great friends with him and I kind of was offended that they even bring that up because this has nothing to do with his death. It doesn't have to do with any of our local police officers because we respect them and their job,” a basketball team member said.

And respect was evident among protesters Monday. The crowd eventually filtered in to the school's gymnasium, shirts on and signs in hand, to cheer on their men's basketball team. And though the tournament only lasts less than a week, the conversation that has started will no doubt continue. 

“I think it's very important that these girls are picking up this conversation. That there are people nationwide that are taking up that conversation. It isn't just these girls. They are a part of a much larger effort in this country,” Doug Hammerstorm, Fort Bragg City Councilman, said.

And as of Monday afternoon, Fort Bragg High agreed to lift the ban on the shirts and let both the boys and girls play. A lawyer of a player was allegedly preparing a federal court motion saying the ban violated their first amendment rights.