Leslie Smith is not one to stay silent when it comes to important issues.
The Bellator featherweight has long been an advocate for fighter rights, but she’s currently focused on getting involved with more pressing matters, namely the Black Lives Matter protests that have surged across North America in the wake of George Floyd’s death after he was the victim of police brutality in Minneapolis.
In her native California, Smith has already attended two protests – one in Oakland and the other in Walnut Creek – with both proving to be eventful and somewhat volatile.
“I was in one of the protests in Oakland a couple of Fridays ago, and it was intense,” Smith told MMA Fighting. “It was pretty crazy. It was wonderful that there’s so many people out. It was planned to start at 8 p.m. at night, which for Oakland, I think that that is not a setup for a peaceful protest. I think that daylight hours in Oakland makes it more peaceful or increases the chances that it will be peaceful. So that one was at night time, and sure enough, the cops declared it an unlawful assembly and then started throwing tear gas and everybody kind of scattered.
“And then I saw a drive-by [shooting]. I’d kind of walked off on my own and was figuring out what to do next after the police started throwing the tear gas. Then a block away from me, I saw a van driving by with a door open and heard a bunch of gun shots, and then when I got to that corner, there’s a security guard who’s been shot. So then all the other security guards came around and they were all whipping out their guns and pointing it at everybody, so I took off. That was enough for me for one night. Too many guns for me.”
While Smith was fortunate enough to not be directly involved in any violence during the Oakland protest, she did have a run-in with the authorities two nights later. In Walnut Creek, “The Peacemaker” found herself standing alongside a group of young protesters, and a confrontation with the police ended with her being briefly detained.
“Just civil disobedience – they set a curfew, and then I decided to get arrested,” Smith said. “But it was with four 18- to 20-year-old girls that I got arrested with, and I have so much faith in the future. They were awesome, they were wonderful, and I’m so happy and proud that this next generation is stepping up in ways that the past generations really haven’t.”
“I was out [from jail] pretty quickly,” she continued. “They said that they were not going to book us into the jail; they said that we were citation-only. They took their time, though. They put us inside of a van for a little while, then they transported us, then they left us there for a little while, and then they transported us to the jail, and then they left us there for a little while. It was about 2 o’clock [in the morning] when I got out.”
According to Smith, she and some of her friends were standing among the group when a police officer got on the loudspeaker and informed everyone that they had to acknowledge curfew. After 20 minutes, nobody budged, and that’s when the arrests started. She was sitting on the ground when it was her turn to be arrested.
What followed were several mini conflicts that Smith saw more as misunderstandings than acts of defiance. One girl tried to catch someone who was stumbling, but in doing so pulled the person away from the police, so she was picked up. Another tried to shield a teen protester from tear gas, prompting another arrest.
Regardless of the result, Smith couldn’t help but be thrilled with the protest effort.
“Man, I was just so impressed,” she said, “A) that they were out there, [and] B) they took it like soldiers. These 18-year-old young women who are not getting treated nicely. It was Walnut Creek, so I’m sure that we got treated nicer than we would have if we got picked up in Oakland or lots of other places, but you’re still trying to prove a point and discourage everybody from doing these.
“These young women were just unfaltering. I was so proud.”
Smith joked that she was “selfish” when in her younger years and wishes that she had been more involved in advancing social causes. As it is, she’s making up for lost time, and her experience helped her when it came time to give perspective to some of the women she ended up sharing a holding cell with.
If it were up to Smith, those arrested would be held up as exemplars, not cautionary tales.
“I totally felt like the old person because I’m about to be 38 this year, and we were sitting inside of the holding cell and one of them started being like, ‘Oh no, what is this gonna do to my record? Is this gonna make it hard for me to go to college and stuff?’” Smith said. “Then they all started getting worried. I hadn’t really said much at this point, but when they started being worried about their records and stuff I was like, you guys, this is a badge of pride. Other people are going to be like, what were you doing during those riots and during those protests? And you’re gonna be like, I was standing up for what I believe is right.’
“I obviously think that this is the best thing that someone could do. Maybe my standards are a little bit different, but I was like, if I was ever hiring somebody and for some reason their police record came up and I saw that they had been arrested for civil disobedience for protesting against police brutality, that would 100 percent put them to the top of the list as far as my hiring would go.”
Smith and associates were eventually allowed to go free without further incident. But the broader societal issue still weighs heavily on Smith, who doesn’t regret being involved in either protest she attended. If anything, it has made her more resolute.
At the moment, Smith is involved in finishing online classes at Rutgers, studying for labor and employer relations with the goal of pursuing a master’s degree. It’s part of her ongoing mission to better understand the battle she’s been fighting on the business end of things as she continues her work with Project Spearhead, an organization devoted to unionizing professional MMA fighters and improving their bargaining power.
But as important as Project Spearhead is, it takes a backseat to the Black Lives Matter movement for now.
“I feel like the Black Lives Matter protests going on right now are the most important thing,” Smith said. “If I had to choose what do I care about in the whole wide world, if the last thing that I post on my Instagram is going to be this stamp of what do I care about if I were to die tomorrow, then I care a lot more about this national movement to protect black people and other people of color from police brutality in the United States. I care about that way more than I do about anything else.”