On Sunday in Germany, during a match in the top flight of that nation's pro soccer league, Marcus Thuram scored a goal. Before joining in the celebration with teammates, he strode to a spot and took a knee.
In Dortmund, at another Bundesliga match, winger Jadon Sancho scored a goal, then lifted his shirt to reveal a written message: "Justice for George Floyd."
In England, at a training session, the entire Liverpool team took a knee for Floyd.
Meanwhile, in America, buildings and automobiles burned and the crunch of broken glass and screams sundered the night.
In Europe, few told those players to "stick to sports," as they do in America when black athletes speak out on matters of social justice. Yet in Europe as in America, sport is politics. Players there have to deal with racist monkey chants rather than the more direct words in America, but both are lacerating. Both make athletes identify with injustice in a way that makes them speak out, even with everything at stake and the eyes of the world upon them, from lofty positions in the social order.
We tend to think of black athletes as transcending blackness. In a telling scene from the 1989 Spike Lee movie "Do the Right Thing," the white, racist John Turturro character explains how athletes and entertainers aren't black. And that works for everyone. The exploits happen on the field, and the millions roll in. But from time to time society reminds them they are, after all, black men - with slurs and handcuffs, things that sting like an invisible barrier. A line is crossed, and suddenly they don't "stick to sports." They speak out.
In 2016, what seems now about a thousand years ago, Colin Kaepernick took a knee against police brutality. "Stick to sports." Other players did it with the same reaction. But sports is often a harbinger of what is about to happen in society. Kaepernick was a young, black, rich athlete who was suddenly connected to social justice causes in a way that made him risk his career for the right to speak out. If a man with everything to lose would do such a thing, why is anyone surprised that people with hardly anything to lose would speak out, lash out in any way they thought possible.
Kaepernick, LeBron James, Eric Reid, the people you are scoffing at as you watch the news today, none of them is interested in giving comfort. Just as the former policeman in Minneapolis wasn't interested in the comfort of George Floyd as he kneeled on his neck.
Too late now, we have seen people wondering why America didn't listen to Kaepernick, didn't heed and understand, even as we know the answer: Why should it when nothing was at stake. Kaepernick's kneeling was a gesture, easily dismissed by a nation fond of gestures. Here's a military jet flyover when tens of thousands of Americans are dying from a virus. Feel better now? Kaepernick's gesture was ignored when it should have been taken as seriously as it was presented. It was a barometer, plummeting to indicate an approaching storm.
And now that gesture is global. European soccer stars are taking a knee while America burns. In the four years since - hell, in the four decades since nonviolent protesters took proverbial knees at lunch counters and on bridges - nothing has changed, even the gleeful lack of restraint with which human rights are violated. And after all this time, there is still no correct way for black folks to protest.
Things aren't burning because people want to destroy. Things are burning because people feel they have nothing, so why not destroy. People are angry because that knee on their necks isn't just symbolic. If you are black in America, it doesn't take much for a situation to put your life and liberty in danger, whether you're Kaepernick or Floyd.
We don't know if the counterfeit twenty Floyd is said to have passed was with his knowledge. At any given time, countless bogus bills are in circulation. We don't know if a white man or white woman would have received the same reaction of force. We don't even know if being confronted by different officers would have made everything different and Floyd would be home right now.
We don't know anything except that could have been any of us - pop stars, athletes, me. And that's why there is anger, a lacerating force that has bred opportunistic destruction and looting. If famous athletes who have spoken out are tired, imagine how tired regular black folks are, especially when the warnings were so vivid, calculated to intrude upon Sunday afternoon viewing parties and sacred anthem moments.
Too much of the nation has no idea why people not directly connected to the Floyd incident are so angry. They can't understand the constant fear, the constant pressure to prove you're human. That's all. Just human. Forget about all of the other stuff. Ahmaud Arbery wasn't human. Christian Cooper wasn't human. It wasn't all that long ago that blacks in America were considered three-fifths of a human.
But black athletes are among the most public, the most visible, the most larger-than-life among us. They're superhuman - until they aren't human at all, just another black man. Michael Jordan spoke out about the Floyd tragedy. Michael Jordan.
Still, America isn't listening. Police officers have spoken out about the Floyd incident, have taken knees and marched with protesters, and still things are burning and still the anger is righteous and all-consuming. You wouldn't listen to the best of us, so what chance do the rest of us have to be heard? Media outlets focus on the looting and property damage, in part because you can show pictures of that. How does anyone depict stolen humanity in a way that doesn't rile viewers or readers, many of whom are thinking, "Look at what those animals are doing." But the warnings were clear, have been for ages.
When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a black-gloved fist at the 1968 Olympics, they knew what would happen and did it anyway. Smith said in a 2008 interview, "We had to be seen because we couldn't be heard." In 2016, Kaepernick made the same decision. In 2020, so did Thuram. And Sancho. James posted an Instagram story that featured a picture of Floyd and the phrase "We're hunted." Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Lawrence tweeted, "How can we feel safe when those meant to protect us are killing us?"
A nation, a world hasn't listened to the best of us, so what's left? In the absence of hope, rage can fester and conflagrate. But this time, nobody can say people weren't warned.
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