“Pick a situation,” Beal said. And he started picking them.
Pulled out of a car with other basketball-playing friends and searched because they were driving through a white neighborhood. Oh, and how about this? Two years ago on I-495, the Capital Beltway, driving with his wife and a friend. Pulled over by police. An officer approached and said, “What if I f--- up your Monday and put you on a headline and arrest you right now?”
“How am I supposed to react to that?” Beal said.
He didn’t know then. He knows now. It’s not to bury those stories. It’s to tell them. It’s to blast them from the speakers. It’s to change the country so someday they stop happening.
“There’s no more being ignorant to what’s going on,” he said.
Beal faced that question and others Friday before he and his Washington Wizards teammates joined their sisters with the Washington Mystics and several hundred protesters on a march from Capital One Arena to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The story is simultaneously stunning and ordinary, and it’s exactly the kind of scary stuff we need to keep processing during this journey we’re on as a country.
Beal is here to help us process it. Natasha Cloud, the Mystics point guard who is elusive on a basketball court but eloquent in front of a microphone, is right beside him, stride for stride. That pair presented as the driving force behind an inspiring, powerful walk through the nation’s capital on the morning of Juneteenth, which was no accident. In the nearly four weeks since George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, was killed in the custody of Minneapolis police, Cloud and Beal talked and texted about what to do, about how best to use their platforms, about whether they can lead.
“We’ve gone through all the emotions,” Cloud said. “It’s been really heavy these last few weeks. It’s been really draining.”
What it will be now, Beal and Cloud pledge, is transformational.
“For 8 minutes and 46 seconds,” Cloud told the assembled crowd, recalling the amount of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck, “you saw our everyday life. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, y’all got a small slice of what we live every day.”
Chew on that a bit. Cloud is a WNBA champion. Beal is an NBA all-star. They spent time talking Friday — on the 155th anniversary of when black slaves in Texas were told they had been freed — about the absolute fear with which they live. It’s the kind of conversation we need to have. It’s the kind of feeling that must change.
The Wizards and Mystics aren’t the first professional athletes to speak out in this way. But they are here, and they have started, and they are also pledging to extend the moment.
“This can’t be a two-week thing,” Cloud told the crowd, and that’s incredibly important. The march was a starting point. The Wizards and Mystics are spending time researching how best to direct their energies, and they have focused on two areas of concern: police brutality and get-out-the-vote efforts.
So lest you think this is a one-time publicity stunt, please check back later. Listen to these athletes, walk with them, and you can feel their commitment. The staff of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Wizards, Mystics and Capitals, provided some infrastructure support and helped with T-shirts and placards as well as securing a march route. But this movement came from the players. It will be sustained by the players.
“When we take that uniform off, we’re black men and women,” Cloud said. “We can’t take our skin color off.”
John Thompson III, the former Georgetown coach who now serves as the Wizards’ and Mystics’ vice president of player engagement, said, “They understand that they are more than just basketball players.”
We have to embrace them, too, as more than that. We have to accept them and encourage them as voices, as leaders. That it took Floyd’s death in Minneapolis — and Breonna Taylor’s death in Louisville and Michael Brown’s death in Missouri and Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida and on and on until it makes you cry — for them to feel moved to speak out speaks to the inherent oppression they have felt their whole lives just because of the color of their skin. But now they are emboldened. Now they are unfettered. Now they will be heard — and will help others to be heard alongside them.
“I challenge all of you,” Cloud said. “If you’re still staying silent, you’re part of the problem.”
I keep going back to Beal’s story of being pulled over to the side of the road by police, an NBA star to all of us but in that moment a black man unable to know what the next minute or hour might bring or whether he would see the next day. So many African Americans have stories like that. So many white people need to hear them. Beal and his teammates, Cloud and hers, they have a platform from which to amplify them.
And so Friday, they began. They marched in front of a black banner that blared “Together We Stand.” They handed bullhorns back and forth, Beal to John Wall, Cloud to Ariel Atkins, on and on, nearly two dozen Wizards and Mystics strong. They set out and chanted “Black lives matter!” They marched down Seventh Street NW and chanted, “This is what democracy looks like!” They turned onto Constitution Avenue and chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” They passed the National Museum of African American History and Culture and chanted: “I can’t breathe. George Floyd!”
They reached the statue of King, across the Tidal Basin from the Jefferson Memorial. They gathered under King’s image, his arms folded. They started reading names, names of black Americans killed at the hands of law enforcement.
“They are few of the many,” Cloud said.
The Wizards and the Mystics are few of the many athletes who are taking to the streets, who will give us no choice but to hear them. That mattered Friday, when they celebrated a joyous anniversary by reminding us how much further we have to go. And that matters in the future, when we can count on them to continue this conversation, to relate their pain and fears, to help us shape how we think — and how we live.