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Athlete Activism

Exclusive book excerpt: ‘Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism’ by Howard Bryant

Bryant’s book explores the new wave of athlete activism

For years, black communities had waited for that moment of truth when white America could see just how they were treated by police. Treatment by law enforcement was one of the great divides between the races. The March 3, 1991, beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles Police Department officers was finally the proof for horrified whites, who always said they’d believe police misconduct if only they could see it, if only there was evidence. Now here it was, and a new day of understanding would surely begin. Vindicated black America had an ally with an outraged white public, right? Wrong.

George Holliday, a local resident, filmed the beating for several minutes. Holliday’s belief in police was so firm that he first offered the video to the LAPD, which rejected it. (Had they accepted it, the world would have never seen it.) What happened was unambiguous: King, an unarmed man, was stopped after a high-speed chase, pulled out of the car, thrown to the ground, and kicked and beaten with nightsticks. On the order of the sergeant in command, Stacey Koon, he and his three officers repeatedly beat King. Additional officers arrived on the scene and, on Koon’s order, were instructed not to intervene. In all, nineteen officers witnessed the beating. Koon ordered his men to deliver “power strokes” on King, and then he himself delivered two Taser shots, each carrying fifty thousand volts of electricity. The officers delivered fifty-six baton blows and six kicks. The beating spurred international outrage and professional legwork in the form of an independent commission’s report, authored by Warren Christopher, later Bill Clinton’s secretary of state. The report concluded that the LAPD had systematic problems, from implicit bias to the refusal of officers to hold one another accountable, and no mechanism or desire to fix them. “Perhaps the greatest single barrier to the effective investigation and adjudication of complaints is the officers’ unwritten code of silence: an officer does not provide adverse information against a fellow officer,” the report read. “While loyalty and support are necessary qualities, they cannot justify the violation of an officer’s public responsibilities. . . . A major overhaul of the disciplinary system is necessary to correct these problems.”

The video was bad. The report was worse. It put words and motive to the beating and published examples of LAPD officers referring to aggressive patrols in the black community as “monkey slapping time”; one officer is quoted as saying that he regretted a missed opportunity to kill a Latino man (“I almost got me a Mexican last nite but he dropped the dam gun to [sic] quick”). The report noted that more than 25 percent of citizen complaints against police were for excessive force, and that a quarter of the 650 officers surveyed in the LAPD believed “an officer’s prejudice towards the suspect’s race may lead to the use of excessive force.” The Christopher Commission reported 63 LAPD officers had 20 or more public complaints of their use of force, and that the LAPD did very little to discipline fellow police. Between 1986 and 1990, the LAPD averaged more than one excessive force complaint against it per day.

To black and brown Angelenos, the report said very clearly: This is what they think of you. The officers were arrested but none was internally disciplined, not the officers who administered the beating and none of the nineteen who watched. Public confidence in the police bottomed out, but when it came to policing, “bottoming out” meant overwhelming support, just less of it. Any other institution would have faced crisis. For police, even a quarter-century low, highlighted by police beating a citizen captured on film and broadcast around the world, only meant more than half the public still maintained a great deal of respect for law enforcement. And yet, despite the video, the report, and the outrage, change did not easily or convincingly come to police departments or the courts. Three weeks after the King beating, Latasha Harlins, a fifteen-year-old girl was shot in the back of the head and killed by grocery-store owner Soon Ja Du after a confrontation over a $1.79 bottle of soda. Security cameras captured the killing. Du was indicted, and jurors in the case found her guilty of voluntary manslaughter, which carried a maximum sixteen-year prison sentence. The judge, Joyce Karlin, intervened, rescinding the juried verdict and, for killing a fifteen-year-old girl, sentencing Du to probation and community service.

On March 2, 1991, the day before Rodney King was beaten, the Indiana Pacers wiped the floor with the Chicago Bulls, 135–114, one of the Bulls’ worst losses of the season. After hearing about and watching Holliday’s video, enough was enough for Craig Hodges. The King attack was an issue with which virtually all of the black athletes had personal experience, Hodges believed. As the most visible and powerful black employees in America, Hodges concluded, black athletes didn’t just have to do something. They were required to. There was just one major roadblock: Michael Jordan, king of the world, on his way to a dynasty, wanted nothing to do with it. Magic Johnson, king of Los Angeles, was silent. NBA bad boy Charles Barkley, silent. All the stars, quiet. Months earlier, when the Bulls were playing in Atlanta against the Hawks, Coretta Scott King invited Jordan to attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the gravesite of Martin Luther King Jr. in commemoration of what would have been his sixty-third birthday. Jordan agreed, but hours before the event, he wanted out. He called Craig Hodges, who recalled, in his 2017 autobiography Long Shot, that Jordan asked, “Hey Hodge, do you want to fill in for me at this wreath ceremony? This is your thing, not mine.”

Hodges and Jordan embodied the Heritage in repose. Hodges believed in the traditions of the black political athlete, but he wasn’t famous enough to garner major, sustained attention for activist activities. Jordan was the superstar who had abandoned that inheritance. Hodges reminded his fellow players of what had come before them, in history and sacrifice, telling them about the 1964 player boycott of the All-Star Game. Hodges reminded other players that they were wasting an inheritance without putting any resources back into it. Hodges wanted to educate players, but Jordan was the king, the guy the others followed. “What do I need an education for?” Scottie Pippen said to Hodges one day. “I make six figures.” On April 29, 1992, the defending champion Bulls swept the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That same day, the four officers charged with beating Rodney King were acquitted by a Simi Valley, California, jury. Los Angeles had already been on edge from the outcome of Latasha Harlins’s case months earlier. The verdict in Simi Valley pushed the city until, finally, it burst. Six days of riots broke out in Los Angeles, the worst civil disturbance in American history. Michael Jordan said nothing. Well, he said something, but it might as well have been nothing. Jordan’s response was weaker than a Coors Light: “I need to know more about it.” Like O. J. Simpson before him and Tiger Woods after, this was Jordan’s moment of intersection, and he used it, Al Sharpton thought, to kill the Heritage.

“History will make them have to answer ‘Where were they?’ just like somebody’s grandchild will ask where were y’all when Dr. King was marching and Malcolm was doing this,” Sharpton said. “Someone’s going to ask them, ‘You were the biggest guy in basketball or tennis or football from Howard Beach to Trayvon. What were you doing?’ What are you going to tell them, ‘Look at my trophy?’ Who cares?”

Jordan was not only not part of the Heritage but had supplanted O. J. Simpson as its greatest threat. Maybe Jordan’s exceptional gifts weren’t limited to basketball genius. Maybe he understood the American racial-power dynamic best, that as romantic as it seemed, black people would never have real power, just as Robinson and King understanding that the romance of armed revolution could never be the answer came not from cowardice but from the bad math: 12 percent of the population couldn’t overtake any majority by force. Jordan never renounced his racial identity. Jordan steered away from controversies where an affirmation of his blackness was required. By allowing himself to be positioned as elite and wealthy but race-neutral, he made greenwashing an essential component of his public persona. Maybe Michael Jordan simply realized that in America, African Americans were never going to get a majority of seats at the table, so getting as much money as possible was as good as it was going to get. “Maybe,” Al Sharpton countered. “But that still makes you a coward.”

In the decade and a half that followed September 11, what sports fans wanted most was proof that their eyes weren’t deceiving them. They didn’t want scouts, gut feelings, or emotion. They wanted research, facts, and numbers. They wanted Moneyball.

But when it came to the police, and the appropriateness of their being embedded in a sporting event where people of all stripes just wanted to crack a beer and have fun, fans didn’t want numbers. They wanted emotion. They wanted politics by another name, dressed in ceremony. They wanted the racialized image of authority as America, the players to love America or leave it. They couldn’t call it that explicitly, so they used another word: patriotism. Numbers would have created an entirely different narrative at the stadium. It would have forced the white mainstream to perhaps rethink the whole hero business, pump the brakes on the jingoism, and recognize that policing was difficult, complicated work, sometimes heroic, sometimes not and maybe didn’t belong at the ballpark at all — especially when black players criticized law enforcement. No one doubted that police work was often dangerous and thankless. What was in doubt was whether it was appropriate to lionize an entire profession, especially when the data suggested it wasn’t always worthy of the blind adulation.

Numbers, however, are what the public received following the events of April 12, 2015, when Freddie Gray was arrested in West Baltimore for carrying a switchblade, placed in a police wagon, and arrived at the station in a coma. Gray never regained consciousness and died in the hospital a week later. After his funeral a couple of weeks later, disturbances broke out and a CVS pharmacy in the area was burned and looted (an image CNN seemed to keep on a continuous loop). Thirty-four people were arrested. As in Ferguson, the black community saw another one of its own killed. Freddie Gray was dead, and of the six officers who were in the van with him, none reported foul play that could have led to his death — yet the city coroner said Gray’s death was not an accident and ruled it a homicide. And as with Ferguson, the armchair quarterbacks, protected in the pockets of their safe communities with police they trusted, couldn’t understand how people could erupt yet again. Yet when the Justice Department investigated the Baltimore Police Department, it found a force that seemed to spend a fair amount of time harassing the black community to such a degree that it wasn’t surprising that the black public believed the police killed Freddie Gray: Arrests without probable cause: From 2010–2015 supervisors at Baltimore’s Central Booking and local prosecutors rejected over 11,000 charges made by BPD officers because they lacked probable cause or otherwise did not merit prosecution. Our review of incident reports describing warrantless arrests likewise found many examples of officers making unjustified arrests. In addition, officers extend stops without justification to search for evidence that would justify an arrest. These detentions — many of which last more than an hour — constitute unconstitutional arrests. Another federal report had concluded law enforcement mistreated its citizens, especially those in the black community, and in a similar response to Ferguson, the armchair quarterbacks who lived in safe, just communities felt comfortable in criticizing the black community. The fans cheered for cops at the ballpark but suddenly had no time for data showing that police routinely violated the Constitution. Under the heading “Unconstitutional Stops, Searches and Arrests,” the Justice Department report noted only 3.7 percent of pedestrian stops in Baltimore resulted in a fine, arrest, or citation, yet the officers would search, stop, and frisk citizens without cause to do so, a violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibiting unlawful search and seizure. Or put another way, 96.3 percent of the pedestrians the Baltimore Police Department stopped were frisked for nothing, just being harassed without cause. The Justice Department found a runaway police department that did not discipline its officers. In another section of the report, the Justice Department determined that several Baltimore officers in the BPD sex crimes division on multiple occasions were found to be having sex with prostitutes and went undisciplined. The culture within the police department was bad enough, but what came next was worse. After the Justice Department report, the police commissioner, city council, and several members of the Maryland state legislature introduced a bill that would address reforms. It died mysteriously in committee. “If the Baltimore City Council could do it alone, we would, but we cannot,” wrote city councilman Brandon Scott. “However, as chair of the city council’s Public Safety Committee, I pledge to work with all of my partners in government to make these much needed actions a reality. We may not have achieved our goals during this session, but eventually we will. For now, however, we are left to ponder who opposed these simple yet needed pieces of legislation and why.”

New York Knicks star and Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony, raised in the same part of town as Freddie Gray, watched the events on television — his people in the streets, grieving, angry, frustrated. He received hundreds of text messages from friends and family. He made a decision. He was going to join them.

“I’m like, ‘Naw, I’m going home.’ You know what I’m saying? Like, ‘If you wanna come with me, you come with me, but I’m goin’ home,’ ” Anthony recalled. “I’m not calling reporters and getting on the news. I’m actually going there. I wanted to feel that. I wanted to feel that pain. I wanted to feel that tension.” And so Carmelo Anthony did something remarkable, something Patrick Ewing never did during Howard Beach or Bensonhurst, something Magic Johnson didn’t do during Rodney King, something no player of his stature had done in decades. He reached back into the Heritage not by writing a check to the nearest historically black college but by showing his face, walking elbow-to-elbow, arm-in-arm, with the Baltimore residents who were the ones actually living the data. Walking with his people and not the celebrity class or the millionaire class only increased what was becoming a personal awakening. Anthony felt for Eric Garner and his family, for Michael Brown and his family. But Freddie Gray was different. Freddie Gray was Baltimore. His Baltimore.

“When you’re in that environment, it happens. It’s a part of your life,” Anthony recalled. “And it’s not until you step outside of that environment and start looking back into that environment when you’re like, ‘Oh, this is messed up.’ I get so passionate talking about it with different people that I grew up with. And we sit down and start reminiscing. Before, when I used to tell that story it was, you know, funny. It was laughing, joking, and funny, and ‘Yo, remember when we got pulled over? Remember when the police put us on the ground? Or they chased us?’ It was funny. Now, that shit ain’t funny no more.”

July 2015. In Walker County, Texas, a woman named Sandra Bland died mysteriously in police custody after what appeared on video to be a routine traffic stop. The players watched. Sports had made its choice: it was going to sell the valor of police to the white public, even as federal investigations proved that police departments acted in many instances unlawfully and in many deadly cases unprofessionally. The players made a decision in return. They were going to show their faces, on the field, to tell their country that times needed to change.

Liner Notes

Excerpted from “The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism,” by Howard Bryant, Beacon Press, 2018. Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.