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Wizards, Mystics players lead Juneteenth protest of bigotry and police brutality

Members of the Washington Mystics and Washington Wizards take part in a “Together We Stand” march to the MLK Memorial in commemoration of Juneteenth on Friday. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The NBA and WNBA are on track to resume their seasons next month, but for Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, basketball has barely registered on her list of priorities.

The May 25 death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody instead compelled one of professional sports’ most outspoken advocates for social justice to march in her hometown of Philadelphia and to write an impassioned essay for the Players’ Tribune.

Now, on an overcast Friday morning in the city where she has spent her entire WNBA career, Cloud was standing on a raised landing outside Capital One Arena, about to lead a march, along with teammates and members of the Washington Wizards, to address bigotry and police brutality.

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Joining Cloud were fellow Mystics Ariel Atkins; Aerial Powers; Myisha Hines-Allen, who Cloud said initially approached her with the idea for a march; and Tianna Hawkins. Ex-teammates Kristi Toliver and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, reading the name of her cousin who died when an off-duty police officer shot him in Alexandria, also took part.

Wizards players included Bradley Beal, John Wall, Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant, Ian Mahinmi, Ish Smith, Moe Wagner, Shabazz Napier, Isaac Bonga, Davis Bertans and Troy Brown Jr.

“You can’t ignore this anymore,” Cloud said during a news conference shortly before the peaceful Juneteenth protest that wound through the streets of Penn Quarter and culminated in a rally at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. “Your silence is a knee on our neck. Your neutrality is taking the side of the oppressor.”

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Cloud was referring to former police officer Derek Chauvin pinning his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed, an incident that has fueled demonstrations across the country.

In the District, the department of public works painted “Black Lives Matter” along a two-block section of 16th Street NW on June 5. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) officially renamed the area just steps from the White House as Black Lives Matter Plaza.

“It’s beautiful because it really portrays togetherness in which we’ve grown a little bit,” said Beal, the Wizards’ leading scorer who helped draw attention to the march. “Not only is Atlanta affected, South Carolina; Louisville, where these events happen; Minnesota, where these events took place.

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“But it’s the entire world. It’s people in Australia, Europe who are marching and protesting, doing the same things we are doing, and it didn’t happen to them. So to see that on a global scale, to see that this is our nation’s capital and to see that right behind the White House, I mean you can’t ignore it.”

With D.C. police vehicles blocking off streets around the arena and officers monitoring the events, Beal proceeded to recount a harrowing incident with law enforcement he said took place several years ago while he, his wife and friend had stopped on the Capital Beltway.

A police officer approached Beal, whose vehicle was parked along the median of Interstate 495, and, without provocation, suggested he could “f--- up” his Monday morning by arresting him.

It was just one alarming exchange Beal said he has faced in his encounters with law enforcement since his days as one of the few African American students at a predominantly white high school in St. Louis, a short drive from Ferguson, Mo., where protests erupted following the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.

Several minutes later, Beal, Cloud and John Thompson III, the former Georgetown men’s basketball coach who serves as Monumental Sports’ vice president of player engagement, addressed hundreds of mask-wearing supporters, including two children in a toy wagon with a “BLM” sign on the side.

Beal and Cloud spoke about the importance of Juneteenth, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Tex., to announce federal orders that slaves in the state were free, even though the Emancipation Proclamation had formally granted their freedom 2½ years earlier.

“Juneteenth is a day of celebration,” Cloud said. “It’s a day of liberation. It’s a day that we were finally freed from our bondage. We couldn’t think of a better day than today to come out here and come together, collectively and unified in solidarity with one another for a greater cause.”

Then marchers headed down Seventh Street toward Constitution Avenue, chanting: “No justice, no peace! No racist police!”

Among those attending the protest included James Mills, 70, of Southwest. It was the fifth such demonstration this month for Mills, who also said he participated in protests during the 1960s and ‘70s.

“It’s a more heterogeneous group this time,” Mills said. “There’s a much more blended set of faces this time. And that’s why I’m hopeful that it’s going to take this time. With so many athletes joining in, you see so much more coming out of it. There’s a hope that I really didn’t feel during the ’60s and ’70s.

“There was just despair. There’s despair now, too, but there’s always hope.”

Tramel Raggs contributed to this report.