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Original Issue


What happened to Michael Bennett in Las Vegas is a reminder of what's driving the currrent wave of athlete activism

IN SEPTEMBER 1990, a rookie guard for the Celtics named Dee Brown walked out of the post office in Wellesley, an affluent suburb west of Boston. He and his fiancée, Jill Edmondson, had barely made it to their car when they were surrounded by nine police officers. Five of them had their weapons drawn. Brown, who is black, and Edmondson, who is white, were ordered to lie facedown on the pavement. They complied.

It turns out that a woman working in a bank nearby had alerted her bosses that she had seen a man "resembling" the guy who had knocked them over for $1,800 a few days earlier. That alleged thief had been a light-skinned African-American man. Brown was dark-skinned. But he was the one on the ground with five guns pointed at him. He produced his wallet, and no officer made the Philando Castile "mistake" and shot him when he reached for it. The police let Brown and Edmondson go. It was a case of, as the official police statement put it, "misidentification." With guns.

All of which brings me to my point—it doesn't matter whether the victim is an athlete or not, rich or not, famous or not, but sooner or later we are going to lose a person we cheer for to one of these situations.

A few weeks ago, on the night of Aug. 26, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett was in Las Vegas to attend the Floyd Mayweather--Conor McGregor fight. After the bout there were reports of gunshots near a casino where Bennett had gone. He was confronted and detained by the Las Vegas Police Department. Bennett later described the incident in a Twitter post. It read, in part:

A police officer ordered me to get on the ground. As I laid on the ground, complying with his commands to not move, he placed his gun near my head and warned me that if I moved he would "blow my f------ head off." [I was] terrified and confused by what was taking place, [and] a second Officer came over and forcefully jammed his knee into my back making it difficult for me to breathe. They then cinched the handcuffs on my wrists so tight that my fingers went numb.

In a letter sent to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last week demanding an investigation into Bennett's "obvious false allegations," Las Vegas police union president Steve Grammas called Bennett's actions before he was detained "unusual and suspicious." Because the body cameras worn by the officers were curiously not activated—LVPD has said it doesn't know why—the available visual evidence so far comes from stills of surveillance footage that appear to show the officer's gun drawn near Bennett's head. The union has hunkered down, denying that race had anything to do with the incident. The Las Vegas branch of the NAACP, however, cited a continuing crisis of trust between minority citizens and the Las Vegas police.

In short, everybody has returned to their familiar rhetorical corners, until the next time—and there will be a next time. But there's only one side of this argument that has guns and the legal right to shoot people with them. Michael Bennett was not on that side.

THIS IS OCCURRING during an explosion in activism among professional athletes, something we haven't seen since the late 1960s and something that more than a few people had been calling for throughout the ensuing five decades. This explosion was detonated five years ago when George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and then was acquitted by a Florida jury. During that episode members of the Miami Heat—including LeBron James and Dwyane Wade—made a point of being photographed wearing hoodies, which Martin was wearing when he was shot.

Everything that has happened since seems in retrospect to have begun then—a string of black beads on a bloody rosary. When Eric Garner was killed on Staten Island in 2014 by a police choke hold, his reported last words—"I can't breathe"—became an iconic cry for justice. Athletes took the field, or the court, with that phrase written on their clothing. They announced their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. And, it should be noted, it was this very issue that first prompted a currently unemployed quarterback named Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the national anthem.

The idea that Kaepernick doesn't have a job in the NFL at the moment is transparently ridiculous and will grow more so as the season progresses and quarterbacks start to drop. There should be no debate about this, but there is, of course. Kaepernick is acting out a righteous rebuttal of what could have happened in Las Vegas last month, or in Wellesley in 1990 and to what did happen to Philando Castile and to Eric Garner and to Trayvon Martin.

The same horrible and preventable fate that befell those innocent people will be visited upon a well-known athlete sooner or later, and when it happens, far too many people who know better will pretend to wonder why.

"There's only one side of this argument that has guns and the legal right to shoot people with them. Michael Bennett was not on that side."



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