The cycle never ends. An unarmed black American dies in the custody of police. Protests erupt. The victim is blamed and vilified. #AllLivesMatter hashtags pop up. Justice is rarely served. The protests slow, the rage shifts to simmering anger, which never goes away, and then another black American dies at the hands of the police, and the whole thing starts all over again.
The latest black American to lose his life in this way was George Floyd of Minneapolis, Minnesota. An employee at a convenience store on Monday, Memorial Day, called police to report that a customer, later identified as Floyd, tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill to purchase cigarettes. Floyd was detained by police, and surveillance video shows he did not resist arrest.
I am not going to link to the video of Floyd’s death because I will not contribute to the ongoing trauma black Americans have to experience every time one of these videos is shared. I am not going to describe what happened in detail, either, for the same reason. I am going to say unequivocally that what these officers did was wrong.
All four officers involved in Floyd’s murder were terminated by Minneapolis Police Department. Derek Chauvin, who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck despite repeated pleas from Floyd that he could not breathe, was charged on Friday with third-degree murder and manslaughter. It’s a tiny step toward justice for Floyd, but it’s not nearly enough.
Our country isn’t grieving just one recent death of a black American at the hands of police or men who believed they had the right to act as law enforcement. On March 13, Kentucky paramedic Breonna Taylor was murdered in her home when police tried to serve a narcotics warrant for a person who did not live there and had already been arrested prior to officers entering Taylor’s home. Taylor’s boyfriend thought the police were intruders and fired at them with a legally licensed firearm. Police returned fire, killing Taylor.
Here in Georgia, we mourn the loss of Ahmaud Arbery, shot by racist vigilantes while out for a jog. On Feb. 23, Arbery was confronted by armed white men, Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael, who tried, as private citizens, to detain him on suspicion of robbery, though the only report of any relevant criminal activity had come from a cell phone belonging to the McMichaels. It took months and a video of the incident for the McMichaels to finally be arrested and charged.
These three are certainly not the first. Unfortunately, they likely also won’t be the last. Amid rising tensions and ongoing protests in Atlanta and across the country, Arthur Blank, Matt Ryan, Kurt Benkert, and other Falcons have spoken out about the need for change in a way we haven’t seen before.
Arthur Blank: The “long, worthy quest for equal justice, civility and unity in America is far from over.”
Falcons owner Arthur Blank released a statement through the team on the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests. He expressed compassion, empathy, and an understanding of the desperate need for substantive change.
A number of events over the last couple of weeks have reminded us again that the long, worthy quest for equal justice, civility and unity in America is far from over. People are scared and in pain. Their frustration is real, and it must be acknowledged and addressed. More must be done to address systemic racism. More must be done to address the underlying issues that have led to these incidents across the country. More must be done to bring people together through meaningful change.
The public discourse on these and other issues is too divisive, too political. These are not political issues, they are human issues that need serious, earnest attention from leaders and citizens alike who understand that diversity is our strength and fair treatment is everyone’s right. Open, honest dialogue is needed on a much greater scale. It is my hope that we take this terrible moment in our history to elevate that conversation toward productive action and lasting, positive change. Peaceful protests of the past have led to new ways forward. Lawlessness, vandalism and intentionally upending the peace with any form of violence has never been productive and is not the answer. We must not accept or condone violence in any way. And to be sure, Atlanta is better than what we saw in the actions of a few last night.
Together we will rise above this on the strength of what has always made Atlanta great – its people, its leaders of past and present and its unique culture that is welcoming to all. Our Family Foundation and the rest of our businesses here in Atlanta and elsewhere remain committed to being part of the solution.
Matt Ryan: Change will take people “listening and learning with humility and compassion.”
The Falcons’ franchise quarterback knows his voice carries weight, and he’s using it to encourage change for the better.
Kurt Benkert: “How many lives have to be taken for no reason before there are actual repercussions and change is made?”
Benkert had an eye-opening experience during his UVA career.
Middle of summer workouts when the KKK rolled through town in Charlottesville, we were put on lockdown in our locker room. Had to see the looks in the eyes of my teammates of color & I had no idea what to say but I’m sorry. So many don’t care about the cause, only the effect. https://t.co/DYvOCHG4NS— Kurt Benkert (@KurtBenkert) May 29, 2020
Violent protests, looting, and rioting are obviously not ideal, given the real and potential harm they create in communities. Piling pain upon pain isn’t a solution. But when years and years and even decades and decades of peaceful protests are ignored, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “a riot is the language of the unheard,”
So many missing the point. People are more mad about looters than the fact that my brothers and sisters of color have to fear for their lives anytime they encounter a police officer. This is something that doesn’t cross my mind if I get a traffic ticket. That’s the problem & more— Kurt Benkert (@KurtBenkert) May 29, 2020
If you are mad about the protests & buildings being burned, you really need to check yourself. Buildings are replaceable, lives are not. How many lives have to be taken for no reason before there are actual repercussions and change is made.— Kurt Benkert (@KurtBenkert) May 29, 2020
Lastly, if I get 1 more comment saying I’m inciting violence... ever heard the saying “well, I don’t blame them.” ? I’m not saying cool go burn things, but they sure got the message across right? When you are being ignored, the louder you get the harder it is to be ignored ♂️— Kurt Benkert (@KurtBenkert) May 29, 2020
They were not alone in speaking out, as Falcons and former Falcons shared their thoughts on social media as well.
Fullback Keith Smith reminds us that “any injustice threatens all justice.”
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The quote on this post was “any injustice threatens all justice” I don’t believe in the looting and rioting, or essentially fighting this cause with hate and fire. But I do believe this is something that the judicial system itself has created due to lack of justice and willingness to hear the pain and cries of a frustrated group of people who just want to be heard. What I’m learning and trying to understand myself is that brushing things under the rug doesn’t work. It only creates buried festering resentment and anger. For more than those directly affected. “All men are created equal”. Straight from the United States Declaration of Independence. Statistics say otherwise, and it is time that we acknowledge that in every aspect of life. What happened to #GeorgeFloyd was barbaric and sickening. Never should anyone be treated in such a way. I will also speak on the way society as a whole is today. I think that is the true underlying problem. Not only specifically police brutality. It’s everyone operating with having some kind of predetermined judgement of people and things created from whatever experiences they have been through or the principles they were raised upon. We as human beings and children of God have a duty to love one another. Don’t put someone else’s actions on another. I think that’s where it starts. Stop seeing color, stop seeing past experience, see love and possibility that every new situation is nuetral and you get to treat it as it is in that present moment. Yes we respect the past and what those went through but we don’t get to live from the past, that doesn’t work. We all bleed the same blood and breathe the same air, let’s be cognizant of that. We as a human race get to listen to understand, not listen to reply or retaliate. We have all been through trials and tribulations, we get to understand that and operate from compassion due to that fact. Stop breaking each other down and start building each other up. We get to be the change we want to see. Rest In Peace to George Floyd and my condolences go out to his family and friends. #RIPGeorgeFloyd #GeorgeFloyd #Justice #BlackLivesMatter #AllLivesMatter #UseYourVoice #NotYourFist #BeTheChange
Safety C.J. Reavis expressed his pain:
All of my associates & people who are not African American who claim to love & care for me. Your silence in situations like these is not only morally wrong but hurtful to me. & I want you to know I see you and understand that love is not genuine.— CJ Reavis (@_reavisisland) May 27, 2020
Tackle Kaleb McGary did a 180 after fan backlash:
McGary’s original take on the protests ignored the historical context of police violence against black and brown Americans, calling protesters “no better than the cops they claim to hate.” This is a take that is hardly unique to McGary, but seeks to invalidate protest by implying that any protest that involves violence is invalid, despite earlier non-violent protests carried out in the NFL and elsewhere being deemed invalid for murkier reasons.
Many Falcons fans did not take that well, with photoshops and harsh criticism abounding. McGary quickly changed his tone.
One sad and senseless death is too many and this trend has to stop. I know I will never experience the same feeling some of my brothers and sisters feel and I cannot pretend that I will. I apologize for my previous misguided choice of words and the hurt they have caused, that was— Kaleb McGary (@KalebMcgary) May 29, 2020
not my intent. I recognize I shouldn’t have said what I said and I am learning from this.— Kaleb McGary (@KalebMcgary) May 29, 2020
The truth is, white Americans, including myself, cannot understand the depth and breadth of the rage and fear and pain and trauma black people have experienced for hundreds of years. White people didn’t have to live through an era where public lynchings were community events. From the Equal Justice Initiative:
This was not “frontier justice” carried out by a few marginalized vigilantes or extremists. Instead, many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person. People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity.
White people haven’t had to feel the grief and anger black Americans feel every time they see yet another person who shares their skin color denied due process and killed by police. White people don’t have to go through the dehumanizing experience of listening to people excuse these extrajudicial killings because “he was wearing a hoodie, he looked suspicious,” or “he matched the description of a criminal in the area,” or “he was resisting arrest; why didn’t he just comply?” The list of excuses for the violent ends of so many black Americans is exhaustive, but these excuses are not valid, no matter how may times they’re trotted out.
White people should, however, be familiar with the struggle against tyranny. The disenfranchised founders of this country spent decades subservient to the British, lacking the power and rights of others, and without a say in their own lives. Through that oppression rose the violent protests that created this nation and were a necessary element of American exceptionalism. Major, fundamentally important change in this country has rarely come from anything but what founded this country: protests that were not polite, quiet, and unoffending. No one is hoping that these protests will escalate to violence, and the harm to life, and to a much lesser extent, property that stems from protests is not something that should be celebrated, but peaceful protest and a peaceful response to protests simply will not happen in every city.
There are some who respond to cries for justice with “all lives matter,” not acknowledging that the idea that white lives matter is implicitly built into our society, and all white people benefit from that privilege. According to the Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings, black Americans have been shot and killed by police twice as often as white people since 2015.
This is why Colin Kaepernick first sat during the national anthem, to raise awareness of police brutality against black and brown people with nonviolent protest and the urgent need for change. He switched to kneeling to be respectful after a conversation with former NFL player and former Green Beret Nate Boyer. His protests were met with animosity, fury, criticism, and eventually precipitated the likely end of his NFL career. Kaepernick has not had an NFL job since, and despite the many claims that he wasn’t good enough or wanted too much money, an ex-NFL VP confirmed in a column this week that teams were afraid of the controversy they thought he would bring to their franchises.
Kaepernick and others who joined his protests were called “sons of bitches” by the President of the United States, Donald Trump. Still, they kneeled. Vice President Mike Pence, who tweeted a condemnation of rioting and alleged support for peaceful protests on Friday, apparently did not feel that way when he caused a scene and left an Indianapolis Colts game in 2017 after Colts players linked arms in solidarity and 23 49ers players knelt during the national anthem.
President Trump called protesters “THUGS,” which is often a term leveled at non-white races and black Americans in particular by white Americans, and went on to quote former Miami sheriff Walter Headley from 1967, saying, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Headley was, at the time, referring to young black men he called “hoodlums,” and went on to say that the Miami Police Department would not mind “being accused of police brutality.”
Attorney General Bill Barr said in a statement that he is “confident justice will be served,” but what does justice for a black man who died with a police officer’s knee on his neck actually mean?
Black Americans aren’t just angry about the death of George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor. They’re rightfully still angry about the death of Trayvon Martin, 17, who was gunned down by vigilante George Zimmerman in 2012 despite being armed with nothing but some Skittles and an iced tea. They’re angry about the death of Tamir Rice, 12, who was fatally shot in 2014 by police within seconds of arriving on the scene without bothering to find out that the gun he held was a toy.
They’re angry about the inexplicable deaths of Freddie Gray, 25, who ended up in a coma while being transported in a police van in 2015, and Sandra Bland, 28, who was found hanged in her cell after a traffic stop in 2015. They’re angry about the death of Philando Castile, 32, also a Minnesotan, back in 2016. Castile was shot by Jeronimo Yanez, an officer with the St. Andrews Police Department, after Castile informed Yanez, as a responsible gun owner should, that Castile had a legally licensed weapon in the car. Yanez opened fire on the car as Castile reached for his identification, with Castile’s girlfriend’s four-year-old child in the backseat.
They’re angry about the death of Eric Garner, which bears tragic similarity to Floyd’s death. Garner was approached by NYPD officers in 2014 on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. He ended up in a chokehold, and like Floyd, told officers repeatedly he couldn’t breathe. Like Floyd, he died as a result. The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who applied the chokehold, was not indicted.
Black Americans are angry because I’ve just scratched the surface of the trauma they experience each time this happens. They’re angry because I could fill a novel with the names and stories of unarmed black Americans who have been killed by police, or black Americans who have been murdered simply because of their race. They’re angry because nothing changes. Civil rights activists have been chanting, “No justice, no peace,” for decades, and we’re still a long way away from realizing justice.
Whatever your perspective on how the protests are unfolding, an overwhelming majority of Americans agree that George Floyd was murdered and that the officers involved should face justice.
I am relieved that Derek Chauvin has been arrested and charged. I hope the other officers involved in Floyd’s death are also charged. I pray that justice is served for George Floyd. Floyd’s death is not an outlier. George Floyd is one of far too many black Americans to fall victim to police brutality.
The best thing that could come of this is for white Americans to take the time to listen, as Ryan said, with empathy to the experiences of black Americans and accept that they’re very different from ours as white Americans.
We need to set aside our own egos and accept our privilege, and like Mr. Blank said, we need to understand that years upon years of this trauma has left black Americans overwhelmed with grief, fear, and anger, and those feelings are completely valid and justified. We need to explore the root of protests and yes, riots, to understand that these are not events in a vacuum, as McGary originally seemed to suggest, but the result of an endless procession of injustices large and small, and constant.
As Benkert said, human lives matter more than buildings. Whatever your personal feelings about the forms of protest, please remember they’re coming after decades of peaceful protests have been ignored, or even actively opposed. Eventually, the grief, fear, and anger — especially during a deadly global pandemic that has hit us all hard but has also disproportionately impacted black people — is going to boil over.
This is larger than sports, and while there’s little doubt I’ll be told to stick to them, the sports world and our Falcons have a major stake in this and an obligation to grapple with it. It appears that’s finally, slowly happening. This is a travesty of justice, and change is urgently necessary. We all have a responsibility as Americans to be a part of that change. That’s the example Arthur Blank, Matt Ryan, Kurt Benkert, and many others are setting for all of us, but we have to accept that it will take a willingness to change in the first place.
Dave Choate, Eric Robinson, and Matthew Chambers contributed to this editorial.