In the brief interlude between the Democratic and Republican virtual national Conventions, another taped act of police violence reminded the country that the wounds created by the brutal murder of George Floyd are far from healed. On Sunday, August 23rd, in the small city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, a bystander captured a white police officer shooting Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in his back, at point-blank range, as Blake tried to return to his car after an altercation with the police. Inside of Blake’s car were his three young children. Miraculously, Blake survived his wounds, though he remains hospitalized and paralyzed from the waist down.
When night fell that Sunday, Black Kenosha rose up. For three days, barging right into the center of the Republican National Convention, cars and buildings were set ablaze, and furious protests went through the night, in rage against racism, inequality, and police terror. Pleas for calm clashed with the cries of despair and anger. Such scenes have played out repeatedly over this long and hot summer. Kenosha is a Midwestern Rust Belt city, midway between Chicago and Milwaukee, two of the most segregated cities in the United States. Black life is hard in Kenosha: African-Americans are eleven per cent of the population but represent twenty per cent of those living below the poverty line. White people in Kenosha are twice as likely to have a college degree as their Black peers. For the past two years, nearby Milwaukee and Racine have been ranked the two worst cities in the United States for African-Americans.
As in cities across the country, the disproportionately high level of Black poverty in Kenosha draws the attention of the police. In 2018, the county sheriff, David Beth, described five young Black people who had been arrested for shoplifting as “garbage people” who were a “cancer to our society.” In a barrage of racist invective, Beth continued, “You have to wash your hands with these people. We’re allowing this group of society to ruin our children and our grandchildren’s future. We have got to try our best to save the future of our communities in our state, in our country.” He went on, “We’ve got to get a handle on these people. And maybe what we’ve got to do is build warehouses that after this generation is gone, and they’ve perished in these buildings, we can turn them into something else.”
This is the kind of raw racism that led to Jacob Blake, though paralyzed and in critical condition, being handcuffed to his hospital bed. (He was facing criminal charges.) Meanwhile, two days after Blake’s shooting, a white seventeen-year-old, armed with an assault rifle, killed two people at a Kenosha demonstration and then calmly walked through a line of police and returned to his home in suburban Illinois, unscathed. (The shooter, Kyle Rittenhouse, was later arrested, and is awaiting extradition to Wisconsin on homicide and other charges.) In Kenosha, local law enforcement predictably overreacted to demonstrations, teargassing and arresting a multiracial crowd of protesters, but it fraternized with white militiamen, even after those armed civilians violated a citywide curfew. The actions of the police seemed to indicate that white vigilantism is welcome in its effort corral protests that it does not like.
These local ripples overlapped with the provocative distortions of the Republican National Convention. In the Bizarro World of the R.N.C., the coronavirus has miraculously disappeared; a new white, silent majority cowers in fear of the omnipotent “Antifa”; and cities are ruled by a motley crew of Democrats, looters, and criminals who are threatening to invade nearby suburbs and destroy their way of life. No one will soon forget the unhinged speech by Kimberly Guilfoyle, a Trump campaign fund-raiser and the girlfriend of Donald Trump, Jr., in which she insisted, of Democrats, “They want to steal your liberty, your freedom, they want to control what you see and think and believe so that they can control how you live. They want to enslave you to the weak, dependent, liberal victim ideology to the point that you will not recognize this country or yourself.”
The R.N.C. made sure to include the voices of Black people, but it was not to decry racism in our country or even to indulge in the illusion of unity. Instead, the former professional football players Herschel Walker and Jack Brewer sought to defend Trump against charges of racism, with Brewer making the absurd claim, “I know what racism looks like, I’ve seen it firsthand. And America, it has no resemblance to President Trump.” The video of Blake’s shooting and the Convention reflected vastly different realities in the United States. In one, wealthy white élites with a few Black friends ignore the pandemic and pine for the police to impose a brutal regime of law and order; in the other, nearly two hundred thousand people have lost their lives to covid-19, fourteen million are jobless, an estimated twelve million have lost their health insurance, and twenty-nine million people reported in July that they didn’t have enough to eat. For Black people, there is, too, the constant threat of racist police violence.
Serendipitously, it was a professional basketball coach who made an emotional link between these different views of the country. After the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks in a playoff game on Tuesday, August 25th, their coach, Doc Rivers, turned his midnight, postgame news conference into a bitter exposition of Trump and the R.N.C. “All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear,” Rivers said. “We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones denied to live in certain communities.” With tears in his eyes, he continued, “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.” But, in a flash of anger, he also pointed to the hypocrisy of police officers assaulting Black men but showing respect to armed white anti-coronavirus-lockdown protesters. “It’s funny. We protest. They send riot guards,” Rivers said. “They go up to Michigan with guns, and they’re spitting on cops, and nothing happens.”
Rivers’s comments communicated the fear, frustration, and anger of most of Black America. The response was electric. The following morning, his words made headlines and dominated all of sports news. By late that afternoon, the Milwaukee Bucks, in the thick of the hunt for the N.B.A. championship title, refused to take the court to protest the police shooting in Kenosha. Within hours, the other teams in the playoffs also refused to play. In complete violation of their collective-bargaining agreement with the N.B.A., players engaged in a wildcat strike against racism and police violence. The radicalization of young Black professional athletes is a stunning development in this unfolding, raucous movement, one that demonstrates the sheer scale of racial inequality and a deep need to do something about it.
The N.B.A. is mostly a league of young Black men, who even as millionaire athletes are not immune to racist police harassment. Sterling Brown, a member of the Bucks, is only two years removed from having been brutally beaten by Milwaukee police. In January, 2018, Brown parked in a handicapped spot outside a Walgreens; instead of simply issuing him a parking citation, eight police officers beat Brown up, disparaged him, and tasered him before arresting him and taking him to jail. Within hours, he was released, with no charges filed against him. If this can happen to a millionaire Black athlete, what on earth happens to the young people that cops like David Beth think should be “warehoused” forever? This summer, Brown wrote about his case for The Players Tribune, describing how it catalyzed his involvement in Black Lives Matter. “What I’m fighting for is bigger than me,” Brown said. “Our fight for justice, equality, equity and respect will be heard and will be met. Our fight for our lives and freedom will no longer be up for debate! We will not be silenced!”
Since July, when players in the Women’s National Basketball Association and the N.B.A. were placed in “bubbles” that have allowed their leagues to continue playing through the pandemic, they have been at the forefront of this latest phase of the B.L.M. movement. Players from both leagues were reluctant to resume playing, for fear of being distractions from the movement. League executives made compromises that included painting the game courts with the words “Black Lives Matter” and allowing players to wear jerseys with movement slogans. Every night, for weeks, professional basketball players in the men and women’s leagues have kneeled in protest during the national anthem and have run up and down the courts with “Say Her Name,” “How Many More,” and “Freedom” stitched across their backs. On the first day of the player work stoppage, women from the W.N.B.A. wore T-shirts with a jarring illustration of seven bleeding bullet holes on the back. Ariel Atkins, of the Washington Mystics, made the obvious connection between her and her fellow-players’ status as professional athletes and the social strife outside of the W.N.B.A. bubble, observing, “We aren’t just basketball players, and just because we are basketball players doesn’t mean that’s our only platform. We need to understand that when most of us go home, we still are Black, in the sense that our families matter.”
In many ways, the women’s basketball players have been at the forefront of the athlete’s turn to protest. When, this summer, players on the Atlanta Dream and other teams began to directly challenge the politics of Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Republican from Georgia and a co-owner of the Dream, Loeffler lashed out against the league’s decision to dedicate its curtailed season to B.L.M., writing in an open letter, “I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement.” Instead of supporting that movement, she called on the mostly Black W.N.B.A. players to embrace the American flag as a unifying symbol and wear it on their uniforms. The provocation helped to focus the protests of the women players, which now included the demand that Loeffler be removed as a team owner.
The athletes’ compulsion to act was infectious. Major League Baseball is only seven per cent African-American, but on August 26th and 27th, twenty teams, led by the Milwaukee Brewers, laid down their bats in solidarity with N.B.A. players and the B.L.M. movement. By the end of that week, the ninety-five-per-cent white National Hockey League had paused its own playoffs series. The league and the players’ association released a statement saying, “Black and Brown communities continue to face real, painful experiences. The NHL and NHLPA recognize that much work remains to be done before we can play an appropriate role in a discussion centered on diversity, inclusion and social justice.”
In the National Football League, the entity that banished Colin Kaepernick from professional football and counts several major Trump donors among its team owners, players made clear that it would not be business as usual. The N.F.L. season has yet to start, but several teams cancelled practices to hold team meetings on combating racism and police brutality. Several players have threatened to kneel during the national anthem, and others are considering sitting out a game when the season begins. In response to the protests earlier in the summer, the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, pledged that the league would intensify its efforts to address racial inequities. Just days before the latest wave of protests erupted, he expressed regret about the league’s deplorable treatment of Kaepernick, saying, “I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to.” In an effort to keep pace with the players, the N.F.L. recently announced plans to put slogans like “End Racism” in the back of the end zones.
In the sports-media world, the players’ protest was like a lightning strike. Sports radio, known for its reactionary “shock jocks,” was forced to engage with the politics of Black athletes. ESPN, which pledged a “no-politics” policy in 2017, after then-anchor Jemele Hill described Trump as a white supremacist, saw its company directives effectively rendered moot. The protests opened the airwaves for athletes to speak publicly about the meaning of this moment. Kenny Smith, a host on TNT’s “Inside the N.B.A.” and a former professional basketball player, spoke of his own encounter with police brutality in a segment after Doc Rivers’s emotional plea. The following night, Smith walked off the set of the program in solidarity with the players. Troy Vincent, a Black former N.F.L. player and the N.F.L.’s current executive vice-president of football operations, was interviewed on an ESPN morning radio show and wept while describing his fear that his three sons will be “hunted” by police.
It would be easy to underestimate the significance of the actions taken by these athletes because of their wealth and celebrity. But it is simply incredible that many players, for some during the playoffs for their various leagues, have violated their contracts, withdrawn their labor, and demanded that this country change. There are those who share the view of Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, who derisively commented, “N.B.A. players are very fortunate that they have the financial position where they’re able to take a night off from work without having to have the consequences to themselves financially.” This, of course, ignores the enormous pressure put on Black athletes to avoid politics, and the taunts and thinly veiled racism that they are subjected to from the President of the United States. Trump famously called Kaepernick a “son of a bitch” for his kneeling protest during the national anthem and called for him to be fired from the N.F.L. The notion that N.B.A. players had little to nothing to lose also disregards the fact that their solidarity with one another shielded them from adverse consequences, including the forfeiture of precious playoff games. Because the remaining teams in the playoffs honored the strike, no team gained an advantage, and no players could be singled out for punishment.
Millionaire athletes don’t have the same vulnerabilities that ordinary people do, but their experiences during the covid-19 pandemic and their lives as Black people have pushed them further toward questioning the state of this country. Professional athletes have been treated as high-earning essential workers, with scant regard for their own health or the health of their families beyond a franchise’s concern about losing its expensive investments during a season. Athletes who are active on social media are subjected to regular racist rants from angry fans, who are literally invested in smooth-running sports because of the proliferation of fantasy sports leagues and gambling. The average fan is in the position of “owning” their favorite player, creating a financial stake in their athletic performance and personalizing the disappointment for wins, losses, injuries, and poor performances.
For months, the return of sports has been held out as a marker on the long trek back to normal, creating enormous pressure on players to put their own health concerns aside to play. The expendability of their lives as sources of wealth and entertainment in the midst of a generational public-health crisis has been plain for them to see. In withstanding the enormous social pressure to just “shut up and play,” Black athletes have helped to redirect the focus of the public on the continuing assaults against Black life, the suffocating racism of the American police, and the insidious ways that our government can stand as an impediment to change. In doing so, they are forcing the country to see them as individuals with lives that extend far beyond the sports they play. At the same time, they are leveraging their celebrity to force white America to recognize the humanness of ordinary Black people. It is a pretty extraordinary expression of solidarity.
Heeding advice given to some of them by former President Barack Obama, long known to be a fan of the N.B.A., the players voted to continue playing after their wildcat strike. But to assume that is the end of the player protest is to profoundly misinterpret the gravity of the moment for many of these young people. The N.B.A. promised to donate three hundred million dollars over the next decade in ongoing efforts to fight racism. They also pledged that teams would convert their arenas into polling places when possible, in order to make it easier for people to vote safely during the pandemic. There have also been efforts to narrow the focus of the players’ demands to voter registration or to enter into partnerships with local police under the guise of “community relations,” as the Miami Heat has recently done. All movements face the pressures of co-optation and demands for acquiescence, and when activists are unsure of what the next steps should be in their struggle, it makes it easier to accept unsatisfying concessions. But one of the dynamics of social movements is that watered-down reforms that activists feel compelled to accept can ultimately be the fuel that continues to propel the movement forward. Everyone, from athletes to teachers, learns new lessons in the field of struggle. The Los Angeles Lakers’ star forward Anthony Davis made it clear that, if the league does not follow through on its promises, “we won’t play again. It is as simple as that.”
The players’ enormous salaries allow them to explore their political power without the threat of material deprivation that disciplines most workers. But they reflect a willingness among those who have been activated by this movement to take risks and make sacrifices for the cause of racial justice. Early in the pandemic, Amazon warehouse employees and other low-wage workers demanded hazard pay and more protections against the virus. Today, teachers unions across the country have been considering strike actions to force local officials to implement more safety and health measures before in-person schooling resumes. Increasingly, ordinary people have looked to collective action as the only way to advance an agenda that reflects their wants and needs. The players’ strike exemplifies the power of solidarity, and its resonance will not easily be defused.
Consider the words of Jamal Murray, a twenty-three-year-old Black Canadian and the starting point guard for the Denver Nuggets. On August 30th, Murray played the game of his life, scoring fifty points against the Utah Jazz. In the postgame interview, fighting through tears, Murray refused to talk about himself. “In life you find things that hold value to you, and things to fight for,” he said to a reporter. “We found something worth fighting for as the N.B.A., as a collective unit.” Instead, he drew attention to his sneakers: a likeness of Breonna Taylor was sketched on one, and George Floyd was on the other. He said, “Even though these people are gone, they give me life. They give me strength to keep fighting.”
[Originally published on September 9, 2020 via The New Yorker]