My junior year at Sam Houston High School was the first time I sensed and experienced discrimination in the classroom. As I became more aware of racial injustice in the United States, I no longer felt allegiance to a country that had no allegiance to me. So I refused to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance during the morning announcements at school. My white AP English teacher threatened to kick me out of her class for this.

I informed my mother of what had happened and the two adults conversed. After hearing my mother speak on the issue, my teacher was surprised by how “articulate” my mother was, as if she was expecting an uneducated Black mother. Because that’s the stereotype associated with mothers from Sam Houston, right?

I told a close friend about what happened that day, explaining why I didn’t stand for the pledge. This convinced her to join me in staying seated. Our teacher then threatened us, saying she was the one grading our papers and would be biased with our grades because she disagreed with our actions. Sadly, by our junior year in high school, my friend and I had already experienced intimidation meant to squash our protest of racial injustice.

A Black college-bound advisor later tried to tear me down. After I declined to participate in a college campus tour, she discussed my “bad” behavior with my teachers. She told me I wouldn’t be successful in life because I had “the attitude of a mad Black woman.” One of the teachers the advisor spoke to took me and my friend aside to tell us that we were not going to be successful because our behaviors and influence on each other were going to hold us back.

Starting with the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was killed by George Zimmerman while Zimmerman was on neighborhood watch in Florida, I have been exposed to social injustice connected to police brutality for the last eight years. And in that time, there has been little to no justice served for the murders of Black people by police and people who think they’re the police. This cycle of injustice has to end.

The reason behind my protest is not a hard concept to grasp. Black people deserve to be treated equally and to receive the same justice that the Constitution reflects. There have been many occasions where white people have committed horrific crimes, like mass murder, and were portrayed as mentally ill, not criminals. But a Black person can lose their life over a minor driving violation, while asleep in their own home, or over accusations of using counterfeit money. It becomes draining for Black people to be shown that the country we built still has no love for us.

Prior to June 16, the date of my high school graduation, I made an Instagram post stating, “Sam Houston graduates let’s stay seated during the pledge at graduation.” Many students reposted my announcement and agreed to what I suggested.

Sam Houston High School seniors Da’Dria Thomas (left) and Jasmine Benton organized a student protest against police brutality and systematic racism at their graduation ceremony. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

During the ceremony, the principal told the audience to stand for the national anthem, but not one graduate stood. I knew in that moment that we were making history. I wanted the world to know that a majority-minority school used their special day to show awareness about what’s going on in the world.

We could have been Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Charles Roundtree, George Floyd, and so many more. We cannot stay silent when the killing of unarmed Black people continues and a broken criminal justice system allows these crimes to go on. It is our generation that will change the narrative of social justice. That day, we were brave enough to use our First Amendment right in this so-called land of the free.

Jasmine Benton is a passionate advocate for social justice and a Sam Houston High School honor graduate.