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AN ESSAY: Kyrie Irving was right: ‘Something smells a little fishy’

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A week before the killing of George Floyd, our Matt Brooks tweeted that he couldn’t see using social media for anything other than sports. Then, the world —and he— changed.

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Photo by Jordan Roy

Being a sports reporter is an odd profession. In a sense, you’re conditioned to the news cycle, spinning like a wind turbine with every gust of “sources say” air. Working within those confines, well, that’s a slippery slope. Which is why I feel it’s only fair we give Kyrie Irving his due; the guy used his platform to divert attention toward what we, the American people, should prioritize at this point in time: diffusing systemic oppression and bettering the lives of our fellow citizens.

Say what you want about his viewpoints, his history, and his general demeanor, but Irving did due diligence in representing the wishes of his “rank-and-file” peers to the rest of the NBPA board. And afterwards, he took the ensuing criticism from countless blue checks and esteemed reporters… head on.

But before we go any further, let’s stick to the facts: According to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, on a Zoom call with 80-some players, Kyrie Irving was a key part in focusing “on the role players could play in combating systemic racism, investing in black communities and sticking together through this process.”

Per Haynes, Irving in particular “made it known he was strongly against going to Orlando, Florida, to resume the season, opting instead to work on the frontlines in his community to focus on racial oppression and systemic racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s homicide.”

The responses to Irving’s declaration to coordinate a league-wide protest were… mixed. Some were angry, others were inspired, a handful of hoops fans were vicious. Hell, a select few were even just flat-out confused. As for me? I’m thankful. I’m appreciative to Kyrie Irving, in particular, for lighting a fire under all of us and pushing me to tell this story.

For those of you unaware, I, like many other young adults in the New York area, spent the previous week-and-a-half protesting peacefully during the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. These peaceful marches were touching, cohesive, empowering. They taught me about how things are and aren’t in the world I thought I knew, but more importantly, educated me on the power of listening, helping me become a more dutiful soldier and better ally while waging war against the face of oppression.

By the time I returned from my time in the streets of Manhattan as a protester, something had… changed in the world of social media and the internets, a world which I call home.

On June 3rd, at the height of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, the NBA announced that it was “back” per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The general consensus amongst fans and media members was… completely and totally positive. And why wouldn’t it be? The league we love and cherish, our collective security blanket, shit, man, it had done the freakin’ impossible.

And yet, one reaction that week stuck with me. A takeaway from one specific Nets player:

Like a self-fulfilling prophesy, Wilson Chandler’s fear of distraction came to fruition. Jarring social media posts of police brutality shrank almost instantly. Articles on the importance of bettering our communities dwindled exponentially. Our collective attention had been swayed by the return of the 2020 NBA season (among many other things).

Again, let me repeat this: We in sports are conditioned to read and react to everything that’s fresh and new. We’re like kittens in a windowsill, our heads vigorously turning from side to side with every bird, insect and flying creature that zooms past our line of sight. By the time I sat down to describe my experiences, the sports world had –– in a sense –– turned its head ever so slightly. And I bought into that; I failed to do my part and share what I learned during my journey.

So, without further ado, allow me to do just that.

A flashbulb memory is defined as “a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshot’ of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential news was learned about.”

What happened three weeks ago –– the gruesome murder of George Floyd underneath the knee of an officer entrusted with the very duty of protecting him –– was exactly that; it shook the lingering status quo within our borders to its core. It could change legislation and our judicial system as we know them. There was no denying what we all saw in that video, no alternate explanations for how things could have played out. This was a disservice to an American civilian by a so-called arbiter of “right” and “wrong.” Even to the most deluded of us, it was a telltale sign that things were not as they seemed.

Like many of you, the second I laid eyes on that horrifying nine minute clip –– a video in which a terrified American called for his own mother with his dying breath –– my mind, body, and soul were flooded by a sea of emotions. I felt sadness. I felt anger. I felt fearful. And most of all, as I stared at the motionless expression on officer Derek Chauvin’s face as he stole the life from George Floyd, I felt guilt. Just in the last three months alone, three innocent black lives (that we know of) were stolen by men whose pigmentation was not so different from mine. Say their names:

George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Aubrey.

That night, I got together with one of my closet friends in the city, Jordan Roy, an incredible black-and-white photographer and a kick-ass activist. I poured my heart out to Jordan, expressed my grievances with the people who looked just like me, told him of the despair I experienced while watching the video of George Floyd’s murder, and the embarrassment that I felt while helplessly viewing a person of similar skin tone do such an unspeakable crime. I told Jordan, I felt I hadn’t done my part to make a change.

My friend, never one to mince words, uttered just six words in response to all of this.

“Come with me to a protest.”

And so I did.

That very next day, Jordan, my girlfriend, and I piled into a Lyft and headed to the Friday, May 29th protest at Foley Square, Manhattan. The three of us have been friends for nearly two years, and moments of stillness between us are few and far between. And yet, those 40 minutes in that Toyota Siena were amongst the most silent experiences I’ve had in my 26 years of life. A brief disclaimer: Prior to last week, I’d never been to a protest of any kind. Not knowing what to expect, and stuck in a dauntingly quiet ride share, my mind became my worst enemy. The fear set in. A general distrust for the system was beginning to take hold. With a cardboard sign held tight in between my knees, it felt as if I was about to be deployed on my first tour of war.

As we pulled up to the square, the first thing I saw were the many, many policeman huddled together anxiously, most not wearing a mask of any kind. The square itself was packed to the brim with 200 or so protesters, chanting together in unison. The general vibe was peaceful, it was soothing… almost eerily so.

Photo by Jordan Roy

Chants broke out from the leaders of the group. By now, I’m sure you’ve heard them all before.

No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!

Say his name: GEORGE Floyd. Say her name: BREONNA Taylor.

From there, we all began our march into the city. That first afternoon was mostly calm, aside from when a pair of protesters were dragged into a police van without a reading of their Miranda rights, an injustice that prompted some of us to place a knee to pavement to prevent the authorities from making their way back to the local precinct. By 5:30 PM, my little group made the executive decision to head to the nighttime protest at the Barclays Center. While waiting for our Via, the three of us heard a commotion on a nearby street. Still new to the experience of peacefully protesting, curiosity got the best of me, and I recommended that we check out the nearby action.

That scene just a few streets over was far different from anything we’d been exposed to that day. A group of 40 or so protesters were in what appeared to be a face-off with around 30 members of the NYPD, with both groups divided by a row of police bikes. Chants of “how do you spell racist? N. Y. P. D.” ping-ponged off the glass walls of the nearby skyscraping buildings.

Photo by Jordan Roy

At one point, an older white gentlemen dressed from head-to-toe in a snazzy blue suit, a black mask, and a cardboard sign. He was encouraged to make his way to the front to protect at-risk protesters with his “shield” of white privilege. He obliged. Willingly, in fact. But before doing so, he tossed his keys to his son and told him “take the car home tonight, your father might be getting arrested.” It was a great moment, an experience of widespread bliss and hilarity between us protesters. The dude was and still is, a badass.

With the group of protesters growing in size, I noticed an NYPD sargeant walking to each and every one of his officers, whispering something in their ears. An announcement was made through an NYPD loudspeaker, warning us that we would be arrested if we didn’t move toward the sidewalk. Fuck that, I thought to myself. We all stood our ground, linked arms in solidarity, and prepared for what was next.

Keep in mind, in situations like this, it’s the police’s job to de-escalate. What happened next was anything but that: In full force, they charged us, batons swinging, punches hurling. We were left defenseless, receiving blows to the dome from these aggressors in blue. I saw my girlfriend get pushed to the floor, and in a panic, I looked up to see who was responsible. There I saw it: two beady eyes staring deep into my soul. That piercing glare, hidden underneath the shadow of a navy blue NYPD hat, didn’t deviate. Rather, it only intensified, almost as if that policeman –– Caucasian himself –– focused in on my whiteness, disgusted that, although we looked the same on the outside, I would dare stand in his path and oppose him. We are not the same, I thought to myself. Your behavior doesn’t define me. Then it happened; his arm raised high and a spray of reddish liquid was sent in my direction. One spray to the left eye. One to my right.

Ouch.

I’m not looking for a pity party or to be painted as some kind of martyr, but God dammit if that wasn’t the worst bit of pain I’ve ever experienced. For the first 10 minutes, I couldn’t open my eyes even a hair. I was tripping over my feet, screaming profanities to the heavens, walking the streets like a blind-man in search of an end to this relentless burning pain. In the midst of all this, protesters, onlookers, and even folks going about their days came to my aid. Gallons of milk were poured into my eyes, folks rubbed my shoulders, and a crowd formed around me and tried to ease my angst and confusion. New Yorkers are like that, man. They do whatever it takes to uplift you during a time of need. As an outsider not too long ago, I never really understood that. But shit, I get it now.

Photo by Jordan Roy

That night was a restless one. My entire perception was flipped. The powers that were entrusted with protecting us, they’d do anything but that –– protect us –– if you looked a certain way or represented a specific division of people. As a white man, you always heard about racial inequality and systemic oppression. But that was it: you just heard about it. You weren’t educated on it as a child. You weren’t thrust onto the frontlines to battle it. You just heard about it. That’s disgusting and it needs to change. Education should represent the totality of our population’s history.

That first day, and pardon me if any of this sounds ignorant, I experienced a sliver of a fraction of what it’s like to be targeted by authorities.

And it was terrifying.

I thought to myself, how could fellow Americans, folks with darker skin tones, endure this every damn day?

I was furious. I was in awe of those who had learned to live in spite of this bullshit every second of their existence. And more so than ever, I was impressed by my friend Jordan, a black man in America who had hidden parts of his past to make me, fucking me, a white man completely ignorant to so much of this, feel comfortable. I was disgusted with myself for not fully comprehending the degree that African Americans are targeted day-to-day. Shit, I still am.

My approach the very next day was drastically different. Gone was my cautious approach to protesting and away went my plan of “feeling out” these movements. My goal was to represent the community I was so lucky to be a part of, to act as a barrier between violent officers and the oppressed exercising their first amendment rights.

The march itself was, like the day before, completely and totally peaceful. Our group was much larger (about 3,000 in total) and we marched from 14th Street to Hell’s Kitchen, and then back down the West Side Highway to Lower Manhattan along the flowing Hudson River.

Photo by Jordan Roy

As the hours ticked on, and more and more protesters went their separate directions, the remaining group of freedom fighters –– myself, Jordan, my girlfriend and Jordan’s girlfriend included –– decided to “take the Brooklyn Bridge.”

And it was, for lack of a better term, dope. A once in a lifetime, completely surreal experience. Now I can hear some of you already: How dare you interrupt traffic?!

As we marched across the bridge, singing George Floyd’s name in unison, projecting our displeasure for the way things had been for 400-plus years, the growing line of cars was….

Photo by Jordan Roy

Honking. Honking in support. Cheering out their windows. Squeezing airhorns at the sight of us. Perhaps the most surreal of all: some of the elder New Yorkers commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan were…. crying. Shedding real tears of joy at the sheer idea of change. That’s the power of these movements. That’s the power of a protest, I thought to myself. I’ll never forget that image in my mind.

I turned to my friend Jordan and saw just about the biggest, most tearful smile I’ve ever seen on his face. It was a grin of freedom, an expression of pure bliss and youthful elation. It brought tears to my eyes to see Jordan with this level of fulfillment. “I FUCKING LOVE NEW YORK!” he screamed to the clear blue skies. Another moment I’ll never forget.

Unfortunately, moments of perceived success proved to be, thus far, rather fleeting. As we neared the end of the Brooklyn Bridge, with our protesting “tail” passing underneath the second of the two bridge towers, we were met with fork in the road; one of these roads led to an underpass, the other thrust us into the middle of Brooklyn Heights.

At this point, most of the members of this group were young… really, really young: 19-to-20 years old at the most. Without any leadership from elders, our somewhat aimless group went the way of Brooklyn Heights down near Cadman Plaza Park. We were met with sudden doom.

A line of police cars and vans, stretching as far as the eye could see, made up our horizon. A sea of policemen stood at the end of our path, walking in lockstep to meet us head-on. “If we stay together, they can’t pick us apart!” one of the protesters yelled, barely old enough to buy a lotto ticket. We bunched together in unison; if we’re going down, we’re going down with the ship.

But we were not prepared for what happened next.

An army of riot police charged at us, full-sprint, batons raised, yelling loud enough to disturb the whole block. There must have been 300 maybe 400 of them, rampaging in our general direction, ready to kick our asses. Beat us to a pulp. It looked like a scene out of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Another image I’ll never be able to get out of my head. To be honest, I wish that wasn’t the case.

It was, in a word or three, paralyzing and horrific. Our group scrammed in every possible direction, fearful for our lives. Think about that: A group of teenagers who had barely experienced the pleasantries of life, sprinting to the hills in search of safety… running from the authorities assigned with de-escalating the situation. Protect and serve… what a fucking joke.

A group of about 30 of us found safety on a nearby street. We regrouped. That stampede of riot cops had flummoxed us, but we continued to march for what’s right.

At the corner of Tillary Street and Jay Street, we were once again met by a group of riot cops, decked from head-to-toe in military gear: face shields, knee pads, batons, guns. The whole shebang. And what did we do? We knelt. This group of the thirty-ish remaining scared-shitless protesters… we got to the ground and chanted “HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT! HANDS UP, DON’T SHOOT!” Best believe, with fear in our collective voices, we meant it.

In that moment, I thought about the man in the snappy suit from the day before. The way he used his privilege –– his whiteness –– to protect the group of innocent protesters. That is being an ally, I thought to myself. Sacrificing for the folks who had already gone through so much. I looked at the brave peaceful soldiers around me, most of whom could barely grow facial hair, and I understood my role. After all, they had welcomed me, a Californian who moved to the city just two short years ago, into their community with open arms and no questions asked. They never judged me for my appearance, never pointed out my newness to the area, never even blinked an eye at my sudden apparition. They let me cohabitate. I’m grateful for that.

It was time for me to do my part and stand up for this community that gave me a home away from home. To the front of the kneeling protesters I went.

Some of you won’t like this: I took off my mask. I thought of the policeman from the day before and recalled how the sight of my skin had triggered such fiery anger from that sad violent man… perhaps it stewed up some suppressed self-hatred too. Stare at my face, let it anger you.

But more importantly, I did this because I couldn’t stand there and watch this group of fucking kids take a vile beating.

Eyes closed, down with the ship.

—————

There is still work to be done. Just this weekend, Rayshard Brooks, an unarmed black man sleeping in his car in a freaking Wendy’s parking lot was shot to death by a pair of Atlanta officers. Police, though there may be the occasional “good apple,” are not protecting us. They’re failing to keep the peace.

I realize that my experiences in the streets as a protestor are pretty tame compared to most. And that’s part of the reason why I refrained from fully typing out this story until now.

But perhaps the biggest reason of all is that suffocating news cycle I mentioned before. I’m a week late on this, I thought to myself last Monday as I hammered away on my keyboard before scrapping my rough draft. That all changed when Kyrie Irving spoke up.

I am indebted to Kyrie Irving. He gave some of us –– like myself –– a reminder to use our voices. He empowered those who felt silenced by societal pressure. At the very least, he’s the reason I was able to get all of this off my chest.

Kyrie Irving brought a critical topic to light among his NBA peers, and I truly believe the league is in a better place in Orlando because of it. Whether the 2020 season resumes or not, Kyrie Irving was behind a good cause. A cause worth battling for, day after day.

Kyrie Irving reminded me to keep fighting the good fight. Call him a “disruptor,” sure, but that’s kind of the point of all this. Without justice, there can be no peace.

**A giant thank you to Jordan Roy for his help in all of this. You can check out more of his incredible photographic work on his website, which can be found here.