Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce felt a one-two gut punch on successive days. First, the white woman in New York tried to “weaponize” her privilege by making a false claim to police about a black man threatening her life. Next, the white police officer in Minneapolis killed George Floyd by placing his knee on the black man’s neck for several minutes as Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe and called out for his mother.
Those events led Pierce to do a lot of thinking, talking and anguishing. An email shared within the Hawks organization by Shari-Zhane Harvin-Langley, an employee in sales, spurred Pierce to take action.
“When I got the email, it hit me,” Pierce said. “What am I going to do? What am I going to say?”
Those questions led Pierce to join a committee of the National Basketball Coaches Association focused on racial injustice and police reform. The events of the past few weeks set the organization’s agenda: use their power to counter “police brutality, racial profiling and the weaponization of racism.”
Pierce, who is black, said he felt an obligation to use his position to do something.
“I don’t care about attention,” Pierce said. “This isn’t about me. (But) I feel like I would have hurt a lot of people by staying silent about what I felt after (police killed Floyd). ... My silence would have been just as complicit as everyone else who has been silent up to this point.”
I admire Pierce for taking a leadership role in social-justice efforts. He’s a basketball coach with a platform but relatively little power. In sports, the real power belongs to franchise owners and the politicians who serve their interests.
Still, Pierce said NBA coaches collectively can use their connections to amplify their power.
“We’re still coaches,” he said. “I’m passionate about bringing people together, and I have ideas of how to do that, but that doesn’t make me an expert in the field of changing policy and legislation. I know a lot of people that have a great platform and are in leadership positions and have access, and if I can bring them together and we can brainstorm, it’s a hell of a start.”
The NBA coaches spent last weekend talking. They were to hold a video call Tuesday to figure out what to do. The goal is to create an action plan for all 30 NBA cities.
I look forward to seeing what the coaches come up with. I’ll help if I can. But my optimism about their chances of creating the sustainable change they seek is curtailed by the reality of what they are up against.
Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” details how police are the enforcers for a system of racial control known as mass incarceration. Prosecutors and politicians shield cops from accountability for misconduct. In some states and many large cities, legislation or union contracts give police special rights above other citizens, creating barriers to accountability.
What can NBA coaches do to change any of that?
“It’s not going to be easy,” Pierce said. “Not everyone is accepting of the radical changes that need to be made. We’ve got to go through some different channels, but we have to be unified and relentless in our pursuit.”
I wish the coaches well. It’s just hard to fill my heart with hope for real change when it feels so heavy nowadays. I feel tired and hurt all the time. Entrenched, systemic racism exhausts the mind by denying the reality of black people and making us constantly prove we deserve full rights as human beings.
It’s depressing when that phenomenon is framed as “politics.” It’s frustrating when even mainstream media outlets treat racism as just another opinion, a “side” that deserves serious consideration. It’s terrifying that this happens even as the president threatens to send soldiers into cities to put down citizen uprisings against police brutality.
The double standards are tiresome. “Peaceful” is the constant expectation for protests against the extrajudicial killings of black citizens by agents of the state. There is no expectation of peaceful conduct by police who maintain “order” by escalating violence, including using chemical weapons on protesters that are prohibited on battlefields.
Black people must defend our humanity to those who use property damage or looting at protests as an excuse to dismiss our calls for justice. Some of those same people call cops “bad apples” when they operate outside of the law with the complicit silence of other cops. White supremacy constantly looks for justifications to deny black people their rights while protecting those who maintain the system.
These are the dynamics that Pierce’s group is working against. It’s a lot. And for Pierce and the other black coaches, there can be a personal toll in taking on an issue as big as systemic racism.
“I’m fine,” Pierce said. “You are emotional. You are vulnerable. For me, this isn’t new. I’ve been black for 44 years. This feeling of outrage, it isn’t new. What’s new is that it’s on TV, and it’s on TV when a lot of people can’t leave or move. ...
“It’s right in front of us and we can’t go anywhere, so we can’t hide from it.”
Credit the Hawks for using plain language to talk about what’s happening. An internal memo the team publicized last week called out “recent and recurring examples of weaponized racism, police brutality and race-based preferential treatment across the nation.”
Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s statement the next day didn’t mention police at all, much less condemn their violence. It included plenty of words on the “lawlessness” at protests. Once again, citizens reacting to state violence are held to a higher standard than the perpetrators of it.
I think it’s reasonable to be skeptical about the prospects of real reformation of racist policing. I’m glad that Pierce is among the NBA coaches doing what they can about it.
“We all have a part to do,” Pierce said. “It’s a problem that all of us need to admit. Black lives do matter. More people need to speak up, black and white. To actually say it, it’s hard for a lot of people to say it and hasn’t been said by a lot of people.”
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