Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett plans to file a civil rights lawsuit, claiming that he was the victim of racial profiling and excessive force when he was stopped by Las Vegas police as he left the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight last month. His accusation about the “traumatic experience” drew support from his coach and the NFL commissioner, prompted an internal investigation by police and brings renewed attention to national anthem protests over racial inequality just as the NFL season is opening.
Bennett, in a letter addressed “Dear World” and posted on Twitter on Wednesday morning, explained what happened as he headed back to his hotel around 1:30 a.m. Aug. 27, an off-day for the Seahawks. When “several hundred people heard what sounded like gun shots,” they fled and Bennett writes that “Las Vegas police officers singled me out and pointed their guns at me for doing nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“A police officer ordered me to get on the ground,” Bennett wrote. “As I laid on the ground, complying with his commands not to move, he placed his gun near my head and warned me that if I moved he would ‘blow my [expletive] head off.’ Terrified and confused by what was taking place, 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.”
The use of what Bennett says was excessive force “was unbearable. I felt helpless as I lay there on the ground handcuffed facing the real-life threat of being killed. All I could think of was ‘I’m going to die for no other reason than I am black and my skin color is somehow a threat.’ My life flashed before my eyes as I thought of my girls. Would I ever play with them again? Or watch them have kids? Or be able to kiss my wife again and tell her I love her?”
Bennett said he was placed in a police car “until they apparently realized I was not a thug, common criminal or ordinary black man but Michael Bennett, a famous professional football player. After confirming my identity, I was ultimately released without any legitimate justification for the officers’ abusive conduct.”
Shortly after Bennett’s post, TMZ released video (it can be seen here; it contains profanity) of the incident, showing Bennett lying on the ground as he was being handcuffed by an officer. He can be heard saying, “I wasn’t doing nothing, man! I was here with my friends! They told us to get out. Everybody ran.”
In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police undersheriff Kevin McMahill said that an internal affairs investigation was underway and that the arresting officer, who was one of several responding to a call of an active shooter in a nightclub at The Cromwell Hotel and Casino, did not have his body camera turned on. Officers later determined that no shooting occurred, but McMahill confirmed Bennett’s account that groups of people were running and seeking cover.
“As they moved toward the nightclub, an individual later identified as Bennett was seen crouched down behind a gaming machine as the officers approached,” McMahill said. “Once Bennett was in the officers’ view, he quickly ran out of the south doors, jumped over a wall onto Flamingo Road east of Las Vegas Boulevard into traffic. Due to Bennett’s actions and the information the officers had at the time, they believed Bennett may have been involved in the shooting and they gave chase. Bennett was placed into handcuffs and detained while officers determined whether or not he was involved in the original incident. He was detained for approximately 10 minutes and released. Mr. Bennett, at the scene, had the incident explained to him by a supervisor and he said that he understood and that he had no problem with what the officers did, just the one that he claimed the officer had pointed a gun at his head.”
McMahill denied that Bennett was targeted because of his race and urged anyone with video of the incident to come forward. He also noted that the department has 126 pieces of video to review. “I can tell you as I stand here today that I see no evidence of that. I see no evidence that race played any role in this incident,” McMahill said. “While officers were searching the casino, they were able to safely evacuate many patrons of all races.”
Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll told reporters Wednesday afternoon that “what happened with Michael is a classic illustration of the reality of inequalities that are demonstrated daily. May this incident inspire all of us to respond with compassion when inequalities are brought to light and allow us to have the courage to stand for change. We can do better than this.”
Commissioner Roger Goodell took the unusual step of weighing in on the matter, the day before the season opener in prime time and just days before teams across the league open the regular season. “Michael Bennett represents the best of the NFL — a leader on his team and in his community. Our foremost concern is the welfare of Michael and his family,” he said in a statement issued by the league. “…[T]he issues Michael has been raising deserve serious attention from all of our leaders in every community. We will support Michael and all NFL players in promoting mutual respect between law enforcement and the communities they loyally serve and fair and equal treatment under law.”
Bennett spoke about what he said was a “traumatic experience” with reporters before practice and added that “it sucks that the country we are living in now sometimes you get profiled for the color of your skin.”
He knows that his story could have ended differently and said that he is thankful to have a public platform for his story. “There are a lot of people who experience what I experience at that moment and they are not here to live to tell their story,’’ Bennett said. “So many people have had the experience that I had, and they are not here to tell the story.’’
Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, called on Las Vegas police to release video of the incident, and a ColorofChange.org petition urges the Las Vegas Police Department to identify the officers and release body camera footage. Bennett wrote that he has hired Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris to investigate and explore his legal options.
In the interim, he intends to continue to protest inequality and police brutality by not standing during the playing of the national anthem, a protest started by Colin Kaepernick. The Seahawks’ next game is their season opener Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, which will be Fox’s featured game during the late afternoon slate of game, and anthem protests may well be in the national spotlight again.
“The fact is unequivocally, without question why before every game, I sit during the national anthem,” he wrote, “because equality doesn’t live in this country and no matter how much money you make, what job title you have, or how much you give, when you are seen as a [n-word], you will be treated that way.”
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