New Orleans There was Ferguson and protests erupted around similar outrages, and the notion of a building movement seemed local and directed mainly at police practices and profiling. The President picked up the challenge and looked at decriminalizing some drug beefs and taking steps for early release in Federal prison facilities. Black Lives Matter seemed to convene here and there, a banner picked up and unfurled effectively in the sign of an emerging movement. Tactics were debated. Heads were scratched and some opinions were altered. Race seemed to finally emerge again as a topic after all of these years that could not be avoided. Change was in the wind, but the breeze was still missing many places.
Then things started breaking out in other venues. LeBron James with his Cleveland Cavaliers and NBA players on some other teams stood tall on Ferguson, and that mattered too because race and police tactics leaped from local to national. Some NFL players stood up and spoke up, too. James Blake, former American tennis great, gets a beat down on a New York City street for the crime of being black and standing on a sidewalk in front of a hotel, and states clearly: fire the cop, and it happens.
In a movement, things change quickly and it’s hard for both the players and the bystanders to keep up. Consider: Hillary Clinton several months ago is confronted on the campaign trail after a speech by some young Black Lives Matter activists. They debate tactics and strategy, and she argues that the inside game is what really matters without crediting the value of pressure from the outside or seeming to understand the power of movements for change. She gets away with it for the most part. Months later the President of the University of Missouri has his YouTube moment and flubs a question on the corrosive impact of systemic racism and doesn’t’ get away with it after he tries to blame the victims and put the responsibility for correcting systemic racism on those hurt and not people like himself who are responsible for leading institutions to make systemic change.
LeBron James has proven that the Michael Jordan posture of a superstar that only cares about business and avoids race is your father’s baller and not the 21st century version. Northwestern University players are bold enough to try and organize a union for college players. The real world does matter. Athletics is not a separate place, but part of the national dialogue. There is no way that any serious athlete believes that race cannot matter.
The University of Missouri football team, led by its huge African-American player contingent, decides to support a graduate student hunger striker protesting racial conditions on the campus along with a student group that includes 1950, the year the university was integrated, in its name. They declare with the support of other players and even their coaches that they will strike and not play their next game in collegiate football’s super South Eastern Conference unless racial justice demands are met and the university’s president steps down. Money talks and people walk. Within 36 hours the President and Chancellor had stepped down. Yale students organize and demonstrate about racial issues on their campus.
These are all milestones worth noting.
Movements are unpredictable and as often willow wisps and mirages as the flesh-and-blood real thing. Mark my words. This is the real thing. It’s past time, but the time has now come, the genie is out of the bottle, and town and gown are now going to converge explosively as campus activists draw the line and local eruptions become commonplace. Everyone needs to get rap tight on race now. Athletes will not be sitting this one out on the sideline. Politicians won’t be as lucky as Hillary Clinton next time. Universities, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and wherever are now on notice: this is the fire next time and it’s on time.