The phone at the Bennett residence rang at 4:30 on the morning of Sunday Aug. 27, resounding through the house like an alarm bell. Michael Bennett Sr. had been asleep beside his wife, Pennie, when he was jarred out of his dreams and into a nightmare. He knows that when the phone rings in the middle of the night, something bad has happened.
“You don’t want to answer the phone because you don’t want to find out [what happened], but you know you got to,” Michael Sr. says. “So I answered it. And it was Michael.”
A few hours earlier, Michael Sr. and Pennie were watching the fight between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor at a friend’s house near their home in Katy, Texas. Their son, Michael Jr., a defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks, was in Las Vegas, watching the fight ringside. His parents’ biggest worry at the time was whether or not they would be able to drive back to their house that night—parts of Houston were already under water as a result of the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. But they made it home, and a few hours later received a phone call.
“Dad,” Michael said, his voice audibly shaking through the phone’s speaker. “I need to tell you what just happened…”
Michael Jr. would go on to tell his father what he would tell the public a week and a half later, in a tweet he sent at 10:01 a.m. on Wednesday morning. How, as he was leaving the fight in Las Vegas, he heard what sounded like gunshots and, like dozens of people around him, fled the area. How a group of police officers pointed their guns at him “for doing nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.” How they ordered him to the ground, how he complied with their commands to not move, how one officer put a gun near his head and told him he’d “blow his f***ing head off,” and how another jammed a knee into his back. How they cinched handcuffs on him so tight his fingers went numb. How all he could think about was his kids and his wife, and how he thought he was going to die for no other reason than for being black.
“He was really upset, he was nervous, he was scared, he was shook.” Michael Sr. says. “He felt like his life just flashed right before him. Any wrong move and he would have lost his life that night. Fortunately for him he didn't say anything. If he had said something, maybe he wouldn’t be with us today.”
When Michael Sr. got off of the phone with his oldest son, he turned to his wife and reminisced about growing up in Amite, Louisiana 40 years ago. He remembered the taxpayer-funded pool in town, the one in which the black kids weren’t allowed to swim. And he remembered how one day a group of young black kids decided to break that rule, and how the town responded by turning the pool into a basketball court a week later. And then, when the same black kids tried playing ball on the court, the town installed parking barriers throughout the court so no one could play anymore.
He remembered what happened on the last day of ninth grade. There were often fights on the last day of class in Amite, so the school would bring in police officers to keep the peace. As Michael Sr. remembers it, one of those officers was sitting in his car, which was parked in the grass, watching as he and one of his best friends, a white girl named Brenda, laughed together, backs leaned up against the building. The officer called him over to the car, and then asked if he wanted to go to jail. Michael Sr., just 14-year-old at the time, was confused. He said no and tried to walk away. Soon he was being hit in the face with handcuffs and taken to jail, where he says a group of police officers called him “every derogatory name that you could call a black person.”
“You talk about a scared dude,” he says. “Man, I was in ninth grade.”
As Michael Sr. relayed the story to his wife, he realized that because of his experiences, because of the hatred and racism that he grew up around, his son was alive today. Michael Sr. says that, like all black parents, he taught his children how to handle encounters with the police—what to expect, what to do, what not to do.
“When you’re a black person—and I hate to use the term black person. I want to say when you’re citizen of America, but we know that’s not the case,” Michael Sr. says. “So when you’re a black person and you raise a young black man in this world, you have to have that talk.
“There were times when they would go out with their friends and I’d say, ‘You can’t go in the car with three other guys. You can’t do it. When its two of y’all in the car, it’s OK. But when it’s four of y’all in the car, it’s a gang.’ They’d be looked at as a gang and they’d get treated as such. That should not be the case. Nobody should have to tell their 15-year-old son he can’t go get a burger with his friends because you look like you’re in a gang. Because of the color of your skin. Growing up we taught them that, we instilled that in them, because we wanted them to be safe when they were not with us. When you’re approached by a police officer you do whatever you are told to do, what they ask you to do, you just do it. We taught them that. And I think that is what saved Michael’s life.”
Bennett Jr., along with Colin Kaepernick, has been the face of social activism in the NFL for over a year now. He’s sat during the anthem, raised his clenched fist in the sky, talked openly about inequality and injustice and the need to reform—not just in regards to systemic racism and police brutality, but he’s also fought for women’s equality and against childhood obesity. When he first told his father last year that he planned to begin his push into activism, Michael Sr. told him that he was very proud of him, the men that he and his brother Martellus had become. Today, that pride is even greater.
Michael Sr. looks at the searing criticism that has come his son’s way over the last year and he actually laughs. For all those people who say that his son is being unpatriotic, anti-military by sitting during the national anthem, he’d like to point them to the 10 years he served in the U.S. Navy. He’d like them to see how Michael, as a young boy, was on every one of those Naval bases with him. Michael Sr. says he doesn’t understand it—he’s a veteran, he loves this country, he loves the military, and yet he can still point out all of the various things that we need to change, that we need to fix. That’s not mutually exclusive; that’s why he went into the Navy to begin with.
“I joined the military so people like Michael and Martellus and whoever else out there can take a knee or make a stand, peacefully, and get their point across and not be ridiculed,” he says. “I lose all respect for people if you really can’t see what’s going on in your own country that you live in everyday. People don’t care about people. They care about animals and they care about people that look like they look.”
On Wednesday morning, Michael Bennett called his father before he made the final decision to post his seven-paragraph story on Twitter. He told his dad that there had been several people around him who had been telling him that he shouldn’t post it, that he should just let it go and not do anything about it. Who had warned him about the inevitable backlash and scrutiny, and advised him that it wasn’t worth it.
Michael disagreed with them. So did his father, who assured him that this is what he needed to do.
“You have to let the public know what happened to you that night,” he told his son. “This is why you’re kneeling. You have to do this.”
The reaction to the post was mixed and charged—as anything that deals with race and the police in America in 2017 will be. But Michael Sr. sees the Twitter responses and he doesn’t understand the vitriol. He—like most logical, forward thinking people would—sees this as a pretty straightforward, right v. wrong issue. There shouldn’t be two sides to racism.
“I don’t understand how people get so upset about this,” he says. “Those [people] saying you need to leave and go to a different country—I think they should go to a different country. If you want to be in a country where you can’t express how you feel ... you shouldn't be here. You’re the one that should leave the country if you feel that way.”
He also sees the people who mean well. Those who tweet their horror, their surprise that something like this could still be happening in this country. He doesn’t blame them. He understands. But that doesn't make this experience any less real for him and every other black person in America.
“The person that says how could this happen? That say they are appalled and shocked. I hate to put it this way but there not any African American people who are saying this. I can understand a white person not understanding how this happens. You grew up somewhere where it doesn’t happen, so you can’t know. How would you know? You don't have to tell your kids they can’t be in the car with their buddies. You don't have to worry about that. But we do. We do have to tell our kids. We do expect those things to happen. We see it happen every day.”
Michael Sr. wants to believe that his son is alive today because he stayed calm and collected when he was stopped by police for no reason. That he wasn’t shot because he didn't curse or get angry when the police officer stuck a gun to his head and dug a knee into his back. He says that black parents need to teach their kids how to handle those situations.
“You should be calm, listening, answering questions,” he says, “and maybe you’ll survive.”
But it’s not that simple. He also knows that there are countless stories of young black men who did just that, and did not survive. He mentions Philando Castile, who was 32 years old—just a year older than Michael—when he was shot seven times by police last year after being pulled over. “To this day, I don’t understand why this kid got killed,” Michael Sr. says.
So, yes, Michael Sr. says, black parents still need to teach their kids how to deal with being stopped by the police. But that shouldn’t be the case, that shouldn't be necessary. That shouldn't be the reality for so many people of color in this country. And that, he says, is the reason that his son is sitting during the anthem, the reason that Colin Kaepernick was kneeling before the NFL deemed him anathema.
“When you don’t have to give your speech to your 16-year-old African American son or your 15-year-old hispanic son, when you no longer have to give that speech so that they can survive, we’ll know we’ve finally come a long way as a society,” he says. “That’s why they’re kneeling.”