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.”