- Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on Tuesday, May 25, at approximately 10:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area after "Giants Postgame Live."
Before Colin Kaepernick was kneeling to shed light on the injustice of police brutality, Marvin Gaye was singing about it.
Before Marvin was singing about it, Muhammad Ali was talking about it.
Before Ali was talking about it, Jackie Robinson was testifying on it and Paul Robeson was singing and marching about it.
Yet it took, precisely one year ago, the appalling sight of yet another Black man, George Floyd, dying beneath the knee of a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, for the vast majority of Americans to acknowledge that pervasive racism on our soil is the root cause of the deaths of thousands, if not millions, of people of color, dating back 400 years.
We all witnessed through cellphone video, for a few seconds or the roughly nine-minute execution, a white police officer’s knee steal the last seconds of a man’s life.
Some police officers, certainly many of color, flinched at the sight.
“I had a difficult time watching,” says Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong. “I wanted to believe that there was something, other than what I was seeing, that was happening. But I clearly felt like, ‘Wow, I just watched a man murdered in front of me.’ I hoped justice would be served.
“My hope was that this would not be the reflection that people see when they see law enforcement. I did not want this to be the representation of who we are as a profession.”
Armstrong was one of two panelists on discussing the topic on “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” which can be seen Tuesday on NBC Sports Bay Area. The other panelist, San Leandro Police Det. Kenny Shedd, a former Oakland Raiders wide receiver, had a similar reaction to the original video.
“I was in shock,” Shedd says. “When I saw the initial clip, it was hard to watch. It took the life out of a lot of law enforcement agencies all around the world because something like that should never, ever happen.”
Chauvin was convicted last month of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He is scheduled to be sentenced in June.
Floyd’s death sparked global demonstrations, some of which devolved into rioting. Then, too, many who were angry with Kaepernick for his peaceful protest were forced to accept that the former 49ers quarterback had a valid point.
That this tragedy occurred during a global pandemic and with two other tragedies with a component of racism – the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, both Black – marked a watershed moment in America. It inspired a sociopolitical uprising unlike any other insofar as it was multicultural and on a grand scale.
Superstar sports figures, such as Stephen Curry and Patrick Mahomes and LeBron James, as well as retired legend Michael Jordan, were moved to comment. Tennis star Naomi Osaka lent her voice, as did such high-profile coaches as Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Tom Izzo and Nick Saban.
Perhaps no community was more conflicted than that of Black police officers. Shedd grew up in Davenport, Iowa, where his father was a police officer. Armstrong grew up in West Oakland, where the things he saw and experienced made him distrustful of cops.
“There’s always the challenge of trying to build trust, trying to get people to understand that at the end of the day I’m a Black man that’s concerned about the issues that I see across the country as well,” he says. “And also, as a law enforcement leader, taking my own personal experiences as an African American man and try to bring that into the conversation within law enforcement.
“Challenging other police officers to understand what it feels like as an African American man when you have a police car behind you and you see those lights go on. How the fear and anxiety that you feel because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The movement toward social justice continues, though not as forcefully as last summer. There have been other instances of fatal consequences with unarmed people of color being confronted by police officers.
There will be more marches, more testimony, more singing and more high-profile individuals taking a stand. There is a need for closing the rift between police and communities often described by color.
A sports figure, Kaepernick, is the face most recently affiliated with a national scourge that predates the Declaration of Independence, much less the Emancipation Proclamation. His original plea was for cops to stop the unjustified killing of Black people.
Seeking fairness is an admirable but clearly tricky. History tells us that many came before Kaepernick, and cold reality indicates many are sure to follow in the hopes that someday promises are kept.