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Books for changing the world

Michael Bennett: Black Lives Matter

Michael Bennett is a Super Bowl Champion, a three-time Pro Bowl defensive end, a fearless activist, a feminist, a grassroots philanthropist, an organizer, and a change maker. He's also one of the most scathingly humorous athletes on the planet, and he wants to make you uncomfortable. Following in the footsteps of activist-athletes from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, Bennett demonstrates his outspoken leadership both on and off the field. 

Here we present an excerpt from Michael Bennett's memoir-manifesto, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable:

...This is why I support the Black Lives Matter movement: because it helps people realize their worth. People in the movement understand that Black Lives Matter is not just a slogan or a hashtag. It’s about resisting the “New Jim Crow,” a social system that has created a parallel, separate, and unequal America, defined by mass incarceration, unemployment, and substandard food and education. Here are some not-so-fun facts, compiled by the Washington Post: Black Americans are two-and-a-half times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers. We are twice as likely to be unarmed when shot, and three times more likely to be abused while in police custody. Juries give Black defendants sentences that are 20 percent longer than those given to white defendants convicted of the same crimes. We are imprisoned three times as long for the same drug crimes, even though we use drugs, weed included, less than white folks do. And when we get out of jail, a chance for decent employment—or, in some states, even the right to vote—doesn’t exist. We are being warehoused in prisons at such a rate that an entire generation has been scarred. In some neighborhoods, it’s just women and the elderly and children, with working-age Black men erased from the equation.

This is the “New Jim Crow,” and it starts so young it will put tears in your eyes. It begins with the school-to-prison pipeline. Here are some more less-than-fun facts, according to the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights: 40 percent of all suspended students are Black; 70 percent of in-school arrests happen to Black students; and before you say, “They must have done something to deserve it,” consider that Black preschoolers—we are talking about four-year-olds—make up 18 percent of preschoolers yet are almost half of those suspended. (What do you have to do to get suspended from preschool?)

To put it plainly, we have no power because we have no wealth. In greater Boston, as of 2015, the average household wealth (assets, not income) was $247,500 for whites; $8 for Blacks. That’s not a misprint: eight dollars. If that doesn’t make you “uncomfortable,” if that doesn’t make you feel like we need to figure out what our world is doing wrong, you might need to check your pulse.

I also support the Black Lives Matter movement because the idea that white lives matter is a given. We see it from the faces on our money to the faces on Mount Rushmore. White lives matter so much that, as I write these words, there is a bloody fight to take down monuments to slavers who fought the Civil War to keep my people in chains. They are held up as heroes. There are three times as many monuments to Confederates in the US Capitol Building as there are to Black elected officials. If we mattered to this country, how would that even be possible?

It’s so important for me to speak out on Black Lives Matter because this movement has the potential to break through the apathy that this country has developed toward our existence. There are white people, tired of feeling guilty about slavery and racism, who direct that anger at us for fighting for equality instead of directing that anger at their own damn ancestors. They should be the ones tearing down these monuments. But for all of us, it has to go beyond statues. Black lives will matter when we back up the symbolism of tearing down a celebration of our past oppression with a true reckoning of this country’s history. I mean, the fact that I don’t know my actual honest-to-god last name blows my mind. That’s some crazy shit. Someone could be walking right past me and be my cousin, and I wouldn’t even know it. That’s how deep-rooted this is! Once we start to get to know each other’s history—all of our history—it breaks down the walls between us, because we understand that a person might be different from us, but their difference is cool. It’s something we can learn from, not something to fear.

We have to fight the numbness. People turn on the TV and see another Black person murdered, and they’re like, “What are the Kardashians doing?” We all need to say, “This shit needs to change.” If we can just get a small number of people—a small number of white people and white athletes— to shift from apathy to action, just like my teammate Justin Britt, we can change the world. That’s the kind of thinking I try to instill when I talk to kids who aren’t Black. Don’t feel guilty. Do something to make it better. Help us heal by standing—or sitting—alongside us.

But for Black lives to matter, Black people also need to know our own history. Kids are always surprised when I tell them about all the things that we have designed, written, and created, and it changes their whole perspective. I want them to know that the 3-D special effects technology used in more and more movies today was created by people who look like us. That is a mission for me: to help young people know that we have been more than athletes and entertainers. I try to make sure that I read stories to my girls about African American inventors, historians, and scientists. I need to do it because I’ve learned, when dealing with the schools my kids attend, that they’re not taught these things.

The sports world, I would argue, has a special responsibility to take a stand on Black Lives Matter. I’m for Black Lives Matter because of the memory of athletes past. Jesse Owens won four gold medals in 1936 yet was not invited back to the Olympics as any kind of honored guest until 1968. And he was invited back because the International Olympic Committee wanted him to go into the track and field locker room to tell John Carlos and Tommie Smith not to do anything out on the medal stand. What does it tell you that there was no room for Jesse Owens at the Olympics? It tells me that they didn’t give a fuck, and that his Black life did not really matter even though he helped define the modern Olympics. People have said to me that, as an athlete, given the money and fame that come with this life, I have no business speaking out. But it’s not about me as an individual. If we as a people do not have fairness and equality, then we need to keep standing up, and when that anthem plays I am going to continue to sit. It’s like Jackie Robinson said: “People tell me I’ve got it made because I have fame and some money in my pocket, but I’m concerned with the mass of people.” That’s my concern as well.

I’m also for Black Lives Matter because, as I said at the start of this book, I’ll be a football player for just a few more years, but I’ll be Black forever. When I’m driving with my family down the street in a nice car in a nice neighborhood and the police see us, they don’t see Michael Bennett the college graduate, the husband, or the loving father. They don’t see the Michael Bennett who is wrapped around the fingers of his baby girls. They don’t see any of that. They immediately see a Black Man who could possibly be dangerous and possibly be a suspect, and who they should think about pulling over. Many people don’t understand that.

My mortality in the face of police violence became a reality for me on the night of August 26, 2017. I had flown to Las Vegas with Cliff to see the Floyd Mayweather–Conor McGregor fight. I am a homebody, and you will rarely see me doing something like this—going to a high-profile fight in Vegas—so, of course, I thought, I bet something awful happens. That superstitious vibe was turned up when I saw Sean “Diddy” Combs in the VIP area before the fight. It made me think of Tupac being killed in Las Vegas. It made me think of Biggie Smalls being killed. It made me think about the fact that the FBI found Tom Brady’s stolen jersey in Mexico, but they still don’t know who killed ’Pac and Big? Thinking about that was like a mosquito in my ear, something I tried to ignore so I could just have some fun.

Before the fight, I sat for the anthem. That’s not just for on-field. But it felt different. When I sit before a game, I am somewhat removed from the thousands of fans standing. But here, I had the intense experience of sitting for the anthem with a sea of people all around. The fight was entertaining, and afterward, I was hanging out at Drai’s casino, right next to the Bellagio, in the heart of the strip. I was in the lobby, just taking in the scene. Vegas is one of the great people-watching places on earth.

Suddenly there was a commotion, and I heard someone shout, “Gunshots! Gun! Gun! Shots fired!” There was a stampede to the door, and a bunch of statues were knocked over, the noise adding to the chaos. Then the police stormed in and yelled for people to evacuate the building. You didn’t have to tell me twice, and I ran. I wasn’t going to go out like that. Like the Batman comics say, “This would be a bad death.”

As I was scrambling to safety, police pursued me and forced me to the ground. They cuffed me, as I lay on my stomach, and put a weapon to the back of my head. An officer said if I moved he would “blow [my] fucking head off.” At the same time another officer jammed his knee in my back and cinched the handcuffs on me so tightly my fingers went numb. The knee in my back made me want to squirm involuntarily, but I was scared that if I moved, that could be the only excuse needed to send me to the next life.

With one of those officers on top of me, I couldn’t breathe. In great pain, and with a police officer’s weapon pointed at my head, all I could think was, I’m going die for no other reason than I am Black and my skin color is somehow a threat. I thought about people like Oscar Grant, on his stomach in Fruitvale Station, handcuffed, police gun to the back of his head, and then the trigger was pulled. I thought about Charleena Lyles, how what happened to her could be my fate, and just how unreal it was that only weeks after I’d stood and marched with her family, maybe her family would have to march with mine. I thought about the Seahawks, playing the season with a number 72 patch on their jerseys. But most of all, I thought about whether I would ever kiss my wife again. I thought about whether I would ever see my daughters again, and sit on the floor and play with them. I kept asking, “Sir, what did I do?” and they told me nothing but “Shut the fuck up.” There was chaos around me, as the police dragged me across the pavement to the squad car, but I had never felt so alone, so powerless, as my hands and stomach were cut up by the pavement. The arresting officer turned off his body camera before he did this, for reasons that have yet to be explained to me.

Two more officers pushed me into the car. One jerked my head down so hard it wrenched my neck, and another officer slammed me in the stomach and shut the door. I asked over and over what they were charging me with and informed them I had rights that they needed to respect. No one answered me as I sat in the back of that police car.

I suddenly knew what so many Black people before me had experienced: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Charleena Lyles, and too many others to name. I now know what it’s like to be treated like an animal. To be a target because of your race. I was guilty until proven innocent, and I knew that this brutality would be justified. After I’d sat in the police car for a period of time, the officers, at my insistence, Googled my name and saw that I was in fact a famous football player (clearly not famous enough), and they let me go. What if I weren’t famous? How would my night have ended? It showed me that because equality doesn’t live in this country, no matter how much money you make, what job title you have, or how much you give, when you are seen as a “n---a,” you will be treated that way...

For further reading, check out Haymarket Books on the Struggle for Black Liberation...

  • Things That Make White People Uncomfortable

  • Things That Make White People Uncomfortable (Adapted for Young Adults)

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