SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: With your father in law enforcement, what were your impressions of police officers growing up?
Sterling Brown: My father was in the law-enforcement world for over 15 years. Throughout that time I had many encounters with his fellow officers. Some worked in the community. They had basketball and football programs for the kids to keep them off the street. I do see where there are officers out there who are trying to help the community. But as far as me and my father’s relationship, it’s tricky for me to talk about, because me hanging out with my friends and running around in the streets, I didn’t like what police stood for; I didn’t like what they did on a day-to-day basis, how they took advantage of their badge and position of power. I had to [look at] my father outside of that uniform.
Did you feel the tension there?
SB: Always. This goes back to slavery, when police were nothing but slave catchers and that was their duty, to catch slaves. Today, it’s still under the same code. They’ve hidden it with coded language and rules and laws. But that’s what it stems from. We need to keep targeting and keep pushing for change. This has gone on for so long. It’s starting to be visible more, filmed more. With George Floyd, everybody was able to see what goes on, on a daily basis, in the Black community.
How different would the reaction have been, in your case, had there been no video?
SB: It would have been a whole lot different. The story would have been: I’m the bad guy who escalated the situation. I was double-parked, but that’s just a ticket and you go home. If the video had not come out, nobody would have believed me. Nobody would have taken my side.
You’re so calm in the video. How?
SB: If I had shown any fight, or any type of resistance, I would have been dead on the scene. The same officer that tased me pulled his gun first. Am I really a threat when I have five, six officers on me? It’s crazy how they can just do whatever they want with Black men and women. [My calm that night] comes from me knowing history. From me seeing where it’s gone left. I know it can escalate—and I’m in Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the world. I was just thinking: Take this ticket and go home.
Did your fears speak to qualified immunity and the issues inherent there? Like: How do you prove somebody was or wasn’t scared?
SB: They have a badge that protects them more than the average citizen. They have a mentality where if a Black man gets aggressive they will shoot before doing anything else, even if the Black man is unarmed. There are other ways to de-escalate a situation. They have too much leeway, and the legal system backs them for it. It’s just not right.
What was your conversation like with your father after that altercation?
SB: My dad spoke to me like a father, not a cop. He showed love and support.
How can conversations like that one move criminal justice reform forward?
SB: The racism in the system as a whole, this Black Lives Matter movement that’s going on now, the racism with police officers—it has to be talked about. It’s not something new. It shouldn’t shock you. We must talk about it, what change might look like. [Systematic reform] is something we must continue to fight for.
How varied was the reaction to your video?
SB: I got a wide range of responses, the majority of them positive. Some people sympathized with my situation. But that wasn’t anything but confirmation, to me and others from the Black community, that this happens on a daily basis. It happens almost every day in the hood, and it doesn’t get publicized like mine did.
What have your recent conversations been like?
SB: It’s useful to have a dialogue about this, because then we get to the root of why it’s happening. I’ve had plenty of white people, even foreign people, tell me about a documentary they watched about Emmett Till or police brutality or the Black Panthers.
What is the status of your civil case?
SB: It’s taken three years, and it’s going to take a little bit more time, because they changed legal counsel. The fight is going to go on. The system, they have the power to extend things, put more into play, reword arguments. We have to continue to unify and organize and strategize. That doesn’t happen in white America. It’s been happening for a long time [for us]. And people are tired of it.
Is this a fixable issue?
SB: For some people, it might be that they go back to their everyday lives and forget about the movement. But a lot of people, the majority of the people in the Black community, we are fed up. It’s on us to change the narrative.