Another black life taken, another outpouring of anger and grief. But after all the tweets and hashtags have posted, after yet another avalanche of opinion columns and TV pundits reminding us of the racism baked into America, what does effective action look like? What can we actually do?
Athletes know that to get results, you have to put in the work. The same holds true for bringing about racial justice. I asked three activist athletes — New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, New York Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon and retired NBA player David West, plus sports scholar Kenneth Shropshire — about the type of work needed to obtain justice for Ahmaud Arbery, the unarmed black jogger who was chased down and killed by two white men. And beyond Arbery’s case, what strategies can change a structurally racist criminal justice system?
Several themes emerged from the conversations:
The initial wave of emotion does serve a purpose: Public pressure through social media is a key part of the early process when justice has gone off track. It took 74 days for Arbery’s killers to be charged with a crime on May 7, but only two days after a video of the killing hit the internet and one day after superstar athletes, including LeBron James, Coco Gauff and Stephen Curry, tweeted their outrage. “It’s more likely that those in power will do the right thing when they know we are all watching,” Jenkins said via email. “Having advocates doesn’t guarantee that you will get justice, but it gives you a better chance.”
West became emotional talking about Arbery, a 25-year-old former high school football player and avid runner who was killed Feb. 23 in Satilla Shores, Georgia, a neighborhood located a few miles from his home. Gregory McMichael, a retired police detective and district attorney investigator, and his son, Travis, saw Arbery run by, grabbed a shotgun and .357 Magnum and chased him in their pickup truck, according to a police report. The McMichaels told police they suspected Arbery of committing break-ins in their neighborhood. (No evidence has emerged tying Arbery to crimes there.) The McMichaels confronted Arbery, a struggle ensued and Travis McMichael killed Arbery with the shotgun, the police report said.
“We don’t deserve to die just because you’re fearful,” said West, who tweeted a page from the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree the day before Arbery’s alleged killers were arrested. “I’ve got a 10-year-old son who looks like he’s 14, and I’m scared to death for him, because people think we deserve to die.”
But emotion is just the starting point. Arbery’s death bears disturbing parallels to the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Authorities declined to charge Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, with a crime until the story drew national attention and birthed the Black Lives Matter movement. Zimmerman was charged with murder and acquitted.
We can’t just tweet about it — we need to be about it.
Support organizations with boots on the ground, West said. He looks for groups working on particular cases or issues and gives them money. You don’t have to be rich to donate, he said, because any amount can make a difference.
“Everybody’s not called to be out front,” he said. “Everybody can’t be the lead dog. Everybody isn’t even comfortable in their own voice. But find an organization you want to support, and support them. Period.”
Clarendon supports RunWithMaud.com, where people can sign petitions and make phone calls to elected officials who have influence over the prosecution of Arbery’s killers. She participated in the #IRunWithMaud movement on Twitter, but acknowledges that in the social media era, activism “can start to seem kind of buzzwordy. People love to just be like ‘LGBT’ or ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and kind of throw out words but not actually do the work. So I would encourage people, first and foremost, to do the work.”
Jenkins is all about the work. On May 9, the Players Coalition, a social justice organization he co-founded with retired wide receiver Anquan Boldin, sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray urging a federal investigation of Arbery’s death. The letter was signed by 63 people, including white athletes such as Tom Brady. On May 10, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr also requested federal intervention. The Justice Department complied.
Show up. The first two local prosecutors in the case recused themselves based on their connections to the McMichael family. A third one also stepped aside. Carr has now appointed a fourth prosecutor, Joyette Holmes, a black woman and district attorney of Cobb County, Georgia, 300 miles from Satilla Shores in southeast Georgia.
While the presence of a black prosecutor offers more hope for a fair trial, so many other killers have walked free. Shropshire, a professor and CEO of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University, said it could exert a significant force at the Arbery legal proceedings if athletes for Atlanta’s pro sports teams attended some of them in person.
Jenkins and other Players Coalition members have shown up in various venues to further the cause of justice. “Athletes and entertainers often have large followings and the ability to use their voice and command attention that a concerned citizen doesn’t ordinarily have,” he said. “That said, if we use our voices to educate and create a call to action, it’s the mass public pressure that creates change.
“It takes a collective effort to have a consistent conversation about the facts, otherwise, it’s just opinions that dominate news. … The public needs to know that they are involved, whether they realize it or not,” Jenkins said.
“We live in a reactive society, and yet, we can be proactive about our ability to put the right people into office instead of complaining or expressing outrage when these types of things happen.” — New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins
But “mass pressure alone won’t always work, as we saw with George Zimmerman when he took the life of Trayvon Martin,” he said. “So we can get caught up in the wins and losses of the individual cases without also attacking the policies that allowed the tragedy to go unaccounted for.”
Those policies are the hardest things to change. Chipping away at structural racism takes years, decades, even lifetimes. Jenkins says the best strategy in this arena is simple:
“We live in a reactive society,” Jenkins said, “and yet, we can be proactive about our ability to put the right people into office instead of complaining or expressing outrage when these types of things happen.”
When Georgia authorities initially declined to charge Arbery’s killers, a prosecutor cited state “stand your ground” and “citizen’s arrest” laws, which have been called counterproductive and reminiscent of the lynching era in the 19th and 20th centuries. Changing those laws will take strategic action, against vehement resistance.
“I know that this is a lifelong fight,” West said. “This is a lifelong struggle that we’re in. There are no individual actors in this, as much as we try to put this on individual people. This is a structural, systematic thing.”
Clarendon recommended plugging into organizations such as WNBA star Maya Moore’s WinWithJustice.org, which is focused on the criminal justice system, or Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight 2020 effort to combat voter suppression.
Jenkins and his former Philadelphia Eagles teammates Chris Long and Torrey Smith lobbied more than a year for the Pennsylvania Clean Slate Act, which became law in 2018 and seals the records of various criminal offenses over time. The Players Coalition seeks long-term reform through actions, such as attending bail hearings; meeting with public defenders, police commissioners and political officials; and holding town hall meetings with district attorneys.
Such efforts can seem futile when injustice is running up the score, but overcoming long odds is something athletes have always shown us is possible. The struggle reminds Shropshire of the biblical motto of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which advocates for diversity in the NFL: “We drink from wells we did not dig.”
“We may not see the final fruits of our labor,” Shropshire said, “but if we don’t start doing it, it’s not going to happen … to get rid of these crazy stand-your-ground and oddball self-defense laws that seem to be targeting our community.”
Said Jenkins: “I see real change happening, it’s just at a snail’s pace.”
“It will take all of us to make the changes we want to see,” he said. “We can’t wait for one leader to get us to the promised land. The journey to true freedom and equality will be on the backs and votes of us all.”