The St. Louis Police Officers Association is demanding an apology from the NFL after five St. Louis Rams football team players walked onto a game at their home field Sunday with their hands up in solidarity with Michael Brown, the unarmed black teen shot and killed by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer in August.
Video and images of the five players (who are all black) flashing the gesture at their game against the Oakland Raiders went viral Sunday, drawing both praise and condemnation.
The hands up sign has become synonymous with the wave of protests that erupted in the wake of Brown's death, which reignited after a grand jury last week failed to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him. The gesture refers to some eyewitnesses' accounts saying Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was killed — claims that were heavily disputed during the grand jury proceedings.
"No matter what happened on that day, no matter how the whole situation went down, there has to be a change," Jared Cook, one of the players, told the Associated Press after the game.
"I don't want the people in the community to feel like we turned a blind eye to it," Kenny Britt, another player, added.
Britt later took to his Instagram page to reiterate his support for Brown. He posted a photo of his wrists wrapped in tape scrawled with the words "Mike Brown" and "My kids matter."
The St. Louis police union, which collectively bargains for the city's officers as well as lobbies legislators on their behalf, called the footballers' gestures "tasteless, offensive and inflammatory," and demanded an apology from both the players and the NFL. They also called for the NFL to discipline the team members involved.
The NFL did not immediately respond to VICE News' requests for comment Monday but a spokesman for the league said it will not discipline the players. The Rams' coach, Jeff Fisher, also told reporters that management had advance knowledge of the players' plan to walk into the field with their hands up.
"We respect and understand the concerns of all individuals who have expressed views on this tragic situation," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement to USA Today.
The police union's business manager, Jeff Roorda, a Democratic House representative in Missouri and former police officer in the city of Arnold before he was fired for allegedly making false abuse accusations against his police chief, said it was "unthinkable that hometown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproven over and over again."
A majority of the witnesses who testified before the grand jury described seeing Brown raising his hands when Wilson fired at him, according to officially released transcripts of grand jury testimonies. In its statement, the police union said that it was "profoundly disappointed" that the footballers "chose to ignore the mountains of evidence released from the St. Louis county grand jury this week."
Meanwhile the players' gesture was widely praised on social media, with some even comparing it to the time when African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos flashed the "Black Power" salute at the 1968 Olympics — a statement that also stirred deeply divided reactions.
Carlos told journal the Nation Monday he wholeheartedly supported the Rams players' actions, and said the footballers "have the right to say what they feel in their heart."
"I remember saying in 1968, you think I'm bad, just wait until this new generation comes out," Carlos said. "I feel like that new generation is here at last."
Roorda also said that if the NFL failed to take disciplinary action, the union would boycott NFL sponsors. He added that he planned to reach out to other police associations to coordinate a response.
"I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights," Roorda said in a statement. "Well I've got news for people who think that way, cops have first 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 advertisers' products," he added. "It's cops and the good people of St Louis and other NFL towns that do."
Sunday was not the first time that the Ferguson protests had spilled into the city's sports arena, although it was the first time players had taken a stand. Brown supporters have staged rallies outside Rams games in recent weeks, bearing banners with the slogan "no justice, no football," and occasionally clashing with fans. On Sunday, about 75 protesters rallied outside the game, while roughly 30 police officers in riot gear monitored the situation from a distance, the Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile in California Sunday, Ben McLemore, a Sacramento Kings player and a St. Louis native, took to the field with "RIP Mike Brown" written on one of his shoes.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi