Years before Colin Kaepernick began protesting during the National Anthem to bring attention to the unjust treatment of African-Americans, David West was doing it in the NBA.
But neither athlete invented the concept of political protest by athletes. They are only the latest in a long line of African-American men and women of sports who have fought for everything from racial equality in their sports, like Jackie Robinson, to political change, such as when Muhammad Ali protested the Vietnam War in the early 1970s.
Today’s NFL players who are raising black-gloved fists are following the example of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the athletes at the Mexico City 1968 Olympics who raised fists from the medal podium during the playing of the National Anthem to call worldwide attention to the civil rights abuses inflicted upon African-Americans in the United States.
In recent years, some NBA and WNBA players have protested police violence against unarmed African-Americans by wearing statement t-shirts in pregame warmups. But before this wave of athlete activism, West was protesting so subtly, no one noticed. Yet, his gesture in many ways is much more profound.
By standing last in line and two feet back during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the self-described black history enthusiast and lover of philosophy is making a major statement about the great divide that persists in this society between black and white, injustice and justice, inequality and equality.
In his interviews this week, David West stated emphatically that the issues he is drawing attention to are “a lot deeper” than those focused solely on injustice and inequality. West’s focus is on root causes, derived from slavery, involving personhood:
I can’t start talking about civility and being a citizen if motherfuckers don’t even think I’m a human being. How can you talk about progress and how humans interrelate with one another when you don’t even recognize our humanity? We got to somehow get that straight first so we’re on the same playing field. And that’s how I feel.
Whether the majority of Americans can own up to it or not, the belief that slaves were considered property, not human beings, is the root cause of where we are today — this is a basic law of cause and effect. In the Antebellum South, the killing of a slave by a white plantation owner was not considered to be murder because the slave was not considered human.
Thus, blacks in America, historically considered inhuman, had to fight for the abolition of slavery (to be seen as human rather than as property) and for their freedom. But once no longer enslaved, blacks then were cast as unequal to whites and excluded from the same opportunities and rights that whites enjoyed.
Blacks were also deemed dangerous. This view stemmed from the prior concept that blacks were not human but also from the fear whites had that those they had abused during legalized slavery would seek retribution. So the fight continued to end segregation and the inequality that went with it.
The grand mistake in the discussion of these issues is the idea that once the laws change people automatically change, too. No, people change by choice.
The country was built on the backs of Africans kidnapped from their homeland. They were enslaved and segregated from society at-large. Although laws have changed to end slavery and segregation, that does not mean that deeply-rooted views of blacks no longer exist. In fact, they exist — in a big way.
Blacks still are considered either not fully human — and, therefore, less intelligent than whites — or they are considered dangerous. It is these entrenched but subtle beliefs that make blacks so easy to kill. Black lives should matter, but they don’t, for these reasons; black people should be considered innocent until proven guilty, but they are not. (Yes, this goes for all people, but all people in this country are not killed at the rates African-Americans are.)
In 2015, members of law enforcement killed 1,134 American citizens. British newspaper, The Guardian, has been keeping count of police killings in the United States (a task U.S. media obviously does not find important enough to pursue), and determined that blacks are nine times more likely to be killed by police than any other group. Considering that blacks do not make up the majority of the U.S. population, it cannot be denied that the slayings of blacks by law enforcement are disproportionate to the killings of people in other ethnic groups. In comparison with a country like Iceland, which had its first and only killing of a citizen by a police officer in 2013, too many U.S. citizens are dying each year because of excessive police force — no matter the race of the victims.
Statements of complaint against police violence invariably bring out questions to the effect of: Who do you think protects you and keeps you safe? Do you have any idea how many police officers are killed in the line of duty every year? What do you have to say about them?
Most reasonable people value the service of law enforcement officers in our country. Law enforcement officers do keep citizens safe by breaking up human trafficking rings and drug cartels, taking dangerous gang members off the streets. They enter into danger that most people run away from — every day. And they are grossly underpaid for what they do.
It is tragic whenever a police officer is killed in the act of trying to help others, like 29-year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Steve Owens, who was killed after answering a burglary call in an LA suburb this week. And the senseless slaughter of officers, who were maintaining order at what had been a peaceful protest in Dallas, is an unspeakable tragedy. There is no place for this kind of vigilantism in a civilized society.
However, the thing that is missed in this line of questioning in response to complaints of police violence is the fact that police officers go to work with the expectation of danger and potential for violence, injury or death. The average citizen does not go to the store, drive from one location to another, or carry out any other mundane tasks with an expectation of danger and potential for violence, injury or death.
It is possible that citizens may appreciate police officers for what they do, but also have the right to protest the indiscriminate violence against one segment of the U.S. population, and they also have the right to demand equal justice under the law for officers who, for example, kill people those who are unarmed or standing with their arms above their head, posing no threat.
USA Today columnist, Sam Amick, begins this week’s story on Andre Iguodala with the following sentence: “The fact that Andre Iguodala is afraid says it all.”
He proceeds in the next paragraph to state Iguodala’s height, weight and wealth (in millions) — all to make the statement that being tall, strong and wealthy do not make Iguodala safe from the scourge of police violence.
In addressing the issue with USA Today Sports, Iguodala, who is on the NBA Player Association’s executive committee, identifies “convenient ignorance” as a reason the body count continues to rise, while cops remain unpunished for their murders.
He goes on to state:
The police are definitely needed, (but) at the end of the day it’s just holding them accountable … You hold athletes accountable, right? Whenever we screw up, it’s headline news — ‘how did this guy mess up?’ We’re almost looked at as God-like figures, like we shouldn’t screw up, when we’re actually human beings. They’re looked at as God-like figures as well, but when they do wrong, it’s almost like they didn’t do it. We’re held in the same ideology, but we’re held to different standards.
In other words, police officers murder black men with impunity, while black men are killed before conviction, let alone arrest, arraignment and trial.
In the current kill-first law enforcement climate, if the likes of Iguodala and others are legitimately afraid for their lives, we all should be alarmed and outraged. If a millionaire capable of traveling with an entourage and living behind a security gate is frightened for his very existence, what chance does any other black man in America have?
In addition to being frightened for their own lives, black men and their families have no choice but to be frightened for their children’s lives as well. The dramatic increase in suicidal behavior among African-American males — no doubt caused by the identity crisis they are suffering as a result of seeing those who look like them being shot in the streets — is a national disgrace.
Through the eyes of a child, what other message can be discerned from the images of black bodies bleeding out on gravel than, Why do they hate me? I don’t matter.
The United States is a great country that has accomplished many great things. But we can and must do better. For a start, it should be everyone’s priority to make a statement at the voting booth this November. It’s time to put out of work the so-called public servants who have approached this issue with indifference or outright contempt on Capitol Hill, doing nothing about this travesty.