LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Tired. That’s what LeBron James looked like answering questions following the Lakers win Monday night. Broken. That’s how Fred VanVleet appeared at the Raptors media availability on Monday. Frustrated. That’s how Jaylen Brown felt as he addressed another senseless shooting.
“We are scared as Black people in America," James said.
Said VanVleet, “It's just starting to feel like everything we're doing is just going through the motions. Nothing's changing.”
Tensions have run high since the NBA decamped in central Florida. Several players have admitted: They didn’t want to be here. The killing of George Floyd sparked a powerful social justice movement, and a resumed NBA season had the potential to distract from it. Ultimately, many decided that the power of their platforms would be effective. That through words and actions, they could affect change.
After the shooting of Jacob Blake, few still feel that way.
Blake, 29, was shot seven times by Kenosha (Wisc.) police on Sunday. We don’t know what caused the altercation. A “domestic incident” is all the Kenosha department is willing to say about it. Eyewitness have reportedly said Blake was breaking up a fight. Video shows Blake resisting officers attempts to subdue him. It shows two officers trailing him, weapons drawn, as he made for the driver side door. It shows Blake opening the door. It shows an officer, point blank, firing seven shots—with three kids reportedly in the vehicle.
That’s what we know. And to determine that this was an excessive use of force, to say with certainty what these officers did was wrong, that’s all we need to know. “If you’re sitting there telling me there was no way to subdue that gentleman or detain him before the firing of guns,” James said, “then you’re sitting there and lying to not only me, but every black person in the community.”
We don’t need to know Blake’s criminal history, if he was arrested for driving without a license in 2018, if he had a warrant out for criminal trespass, domestic abuse and third-degree sexual assault, as has been reported. We don’t need social media sleuths declaring, without evidence, that Blake was reaching for a gun. It’s not relevant. There’s no police manual that justifies unloading a weapon at close range. There’s no protocol for shooting into a vehicle with children in it. Painting Blake, without evidence, as a threat to these officers life is victim blaming, and it’s shameful. It is, as VanVleet said, “a depreciation of life.”
“There is an emphasis in this country on the framing of these incidents,” Brown said. “The ‘Well he was a convicted felon, well he had a history of police brutality, well he possibly had a weapon.’ This framework is not unfamiliar to people of color. It does not constitute death or being shot seven times. The reality is the majority of African Americans or people of color have a history with the police. It comes with systemic oppression, lack of education, economic opportunity. Most minority communities have issue with the police.
“The question that I would like to ask is, ‘Does America think that Black people or people of color are uncivilized, savages or naturally unjust? Or are we products of the environments we participate in?’ That’s the question I’d like to ask America. America has [given] its answer over and over again. Are we not human beings? Is Jacob Blake not a human being? I don’t care if he did something ten years ago, ten days ago or ten minutes ago. If he served his sentence, he did not deserve to be shot in the back seven times. His kids will never unsee that. His family will never unsee it. And, frankly, I will never unsee it.”
Players had already begun to question the impact their voices were having. The Blake shooting created even more. The Raptors and Celtics are set to tip off an anticipated second round series on Thursday, and it’s possible several players may decide not to be a part of it. VanVleet didn’t rule out a boycott. Marcus Smart said not playing “is in the back of our minds.” Brown believes that attention paid to the social justice movement has diminished since the start of the playoffs.
“At what point do we not have to speak about it anymore?” VanVleet said. “Are we going to hold everybody accountable, or we're just going to put the spotlight on Black people, or Black athletes, or entertainers and say, 'What are you doing? What are you contributing to your community? What are you putting on the line?”
“And then us, too, we've got to take responsibility as well. Like, what are we willing to give us? Do we actually give a f--- about what's going on, or is it just cool to wear 'Black Lives Matter' on the backdrop, or wear a T-shirt? Like, what does that really mean? Is it really doing anything ... at the end of the day, if we're going to sit here and talk about making change, then at some point we're going to have to put our nuts on the line and actually put something up to lose, rather than just money or visibility. I'm just over the media aspect of it. It's sensationalized, we talk about it every day, that's all we see, but it just feels like a big pacifier to me.”
Players want more. “I want to protest,” Brown tweeted. Earlier, Brown suggested teams work more closely with community organizations, even putting some members on staff. VanVleet encouraged anyone hearing him to make it a priority to be an agent of change. Still, any optimism about making an impact that existed when players entered the bubble has been replaced by a sense of hopelessness and despair.
The games will go on, even if many players are not all the way there. “Right now,” Marcus Smart said, “our focus shouldn’t be on basketball.” The bubble season will continue. But after another shooting, it won’t be the same.