Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose made one heck of a public statement by showing up to a game wearing a t-shirt with the words, “I can’t breathe” on it before a Saturday game against the Golden State Warriors. The shirt was a tribute to the late Eric Garner, who died at the hands of the New York Police Department.
Of course we know about the protests nation-wide against the grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in Garner’s death. ”I can’t breathe” were Garner’s last words before passing.
Derrick Rose is just one of many athletes to take a stand against police brutality, police terror and the mass incarceration of black men. Millions of black people across America are consistently stopped, searched and questioned by police without probable cause, leading to more police interactions that can result in beatings, arrests and deaths. The same black kid who might end up in handcuffs over a $5 bag of weed would never be bothered if he were a white frat boy on a college campus with LSD in his bookbag. Why? Because police almost never raid college campuses.
Five players from the St. Louis Rams came onto the field with their hands up in protest of the decision of the grand jury in Ferguson not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. This is part of a long string of protests by athletes and entertainers, including Diddy, who recently called upon rappers to use their leadership role to convince black people to do something other than drink, smoke, pop mollies, shoot each other and waste all their money at the club.
Rose is also joined by LeBron James, who made statements this week about the recent incidents. James encouraged other athletes to get involved and speak out about the many social problems being faced by our society, particularly those that impact young black men.
As I watch all of this take place, all I can say is “amen,” and it’s about damn time. I can also say that Rose, LeBron and young black male athletes have become America’s worst nightmare. For decades, the miseducation of black male athletes served the purpose of indoctrinating them into a way of thinking that was simple-minded, myopic, self-absorbed, materialistic and devoid of social consciousness. This deliberate effort to keep our most powerful athletes and entertainers distracted occurred for the same reasons that Joe Louis was told that he would only be given a chance to fight if he ensured that he would never behave like Jack Johnson.
Big, strong, wealthy, famous, influential athletes are an inherent threat to national security and white supremacy. Thus, there are always those who seek to constrain, misdirect, distract and mute these voices at an early age. One example is in the film, “The Express,” where Syracuse star running back Ernie Davis was told by his white coach to avoid getting involved in the civil rights movement and to “do his talking on the field.” All the while, the film portrays the outspoken Jim Brown (who was an even better athlete than Davis) as the “bad negro” because he refused to remain silent about the injustice all around him.
For too many years, we’ve been forced to deal with athletes like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Charles Barkley, who seemed to feel that the life of a privileged, wealthy black athlete was entirely detached from the experience of most black men in America. All for the sake of tap dancing for money, the richest and most powerful athletes in our communities have been misled into believing that being the silent, polite, apolitical negro is the way to be successful. So, while a few of these men were living the dream, millions in their commuity were enduring a nightmare.
Barkley, Jordan and Kobe might be wise to realize that many of the “threatening” black men being beaten, arrested and shot by police are also as physically large as they are. Both Michael Brown and Eric Garner were seen as threats by police, in part, because they were big black men. The only difference is that, rather than being accepted as entertaining athletic specimens, men like Brown and Garner have been defined to be menaces to society.
So, like old horses shot in the pasture, uneducated black males who lose their athletic gifts are often marginalized in the same way as Eric Garner. In fact, Garner was roughly the same size as Barkley himself. Similar to Garner, Barkley once had a very serious altercation with police that could have cost him his life. The only difference between Barkley and Garner on that fateful day is that one of these men was accused of selling loose cigarettes and the other was a millionaire NBA star for the Houston Rockets. Had Barkley been a black man with no athletic ability, he would have likely ended up in a prison cell, hospital bed or a casket.
The reason to rejoice about the presence of brave and intelligent souls like Derrick Rose and LeBron James is that these men, like black athletes of the sixties, fully understand the capacity for black male athletic leadership that goes beyond being able to dribble a basketball in front of a crowd full of white people. I also give Diddy credit for realizing that, unlike his perpetually muted and hyper-materialistic colleague Jay-Z, his purpose isn’t to simply stand in front of a crowd of white folks and call himself a “n*gger in Paris.”
You see, to get the world to respect and appreciate the humanity of the black male, black men themselves must communicate this humanity. It’s hard to explain that you are a complex, sensitive, richly-composed human being who is worthy of dignity when you let some corporation market you as a one-dimensional “thug n*gga” or as some kind of big, black buck who carries a ball. It’s difficult to justify the murder of a human being, but no one feels sympathy for a “thug.”
These athletes, by using their collective voice, are showing that they understand that power should have purpose, and that this purpose should be greater than buying another fancy car, a big house or winning NBA championships. These men are meant to be as intelligent as they are athletic, as righteous as they are entertaining. Their power can be used to lift the same community that made them into who they are today. That’s what great black men do.
We are seeing, what I would argue to be, America’s worst nightmare, but black America’s dream come true. We are witnessing the awakening of the black male athlete and entertainer, who is now finding that he was put on this earth for a purpose greater than entertainment. Now that this power has been unleashed, sit back and watch this country change right before your very eyes. These brothers are doing something special.
Article by Dr. Boyce Watkins