As I was scrolling through social media on my phone, watching protest videos from cities across the country, I came across a clip of players from the Milwaukee Bucks joining the city’s residents in chants of “Black Lives Matter.” Reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antentoukounmpo handed out water and soft drinks to the fellow protesters, along with teammates Donte DiVincenzo, Brooke Lopez, Frank Mason, and Thanasis Antentoukounmpo, Giannis’ brother. Then, there was Bucks shooting guard Sterling Brown, leading a crowd of Milwaukee residents down the street in a chant of “No Racist Police.” The video struck me because it reminded me that Sterling Brown existed, and that the violence and indignity he experienced at the hands of the Milwaukee Police Department two and half years ago was profoundly fucked up.
On January 26, 2018, at 2 am, Brown was approached by a Milawaukee police officer because his car was straddling two handicap spots in a Walgreens parking lot. After conversing with Brown, the officer requested backup because he refused to take his hands out of his sweatshirt pocket. Multiple officers arrived on the scene, and Brown withheld from complying with their demands, responding with the very reasonable retort, “I have stuff in my hands.”
Brown was subsequently tased and tackled to the ground by multiple officers on site. One of the officers even taunted him for his profession, claiming, “I don’t follow the Bucks.”
Brown was arrested for suspicion of resisting arrest, but the case was not referred to prosecutors after an internal review. Initial reports from the Milwaukee Police Department claimed Brown was “very aggressive,” that he “physically resisted officers’ attempts to handcuff him,” and that he was “taken to the ground in a controlled manner.” However, the 30-minute body cam footage released by the department tells a different story. The video shows an exacerbated but demure Brown trying to explain why he will not take his hands out of his pockets, and then roughly ten police officers pouncing on him and forcefully grappling him to the ground, with one of them screaming, “Taser! Taser! Taser!”
The footage is harrowing. Brown was staring death in the face at the hands of these goons because of a minor parking violation (in what was a presumably empty parking lot, because it was 2am at a Walgreens) and a refusal to let go of his snacks. A common chant of Black Lives Matter protesters is, “hands up, don’t shoot!” for this exact reason.
In the aftermath, top brass at MPD made their apologies to Brown and the city of Milwaukee with hackneyed, cliche platitudes. Brown filed a civil suit with the city that remains unsettled to this day. Milwaukee’s history of racist police brutality was revealed with stories and statistics of forceful arrests of its black citizens, which makes up 37.6% of the city’s population. But then, the city, the state of Wisconsin, and the sports world at large moved on and forgot about the whole ordeal.
When I first read about this story, I recall feeling outraged on behalf of Brown. But after about two days, I moved on as well, for two reasons. The first is the most obvious: I am a white man, and one of the cushiest luxuries of white privilege is that, while we may feel outrage towards any sort of racial injustice, we quickly forget about it. This is a point of guilt for me. As a basketball fan and someone who fancies himself as progressive, I should have been posting on social media about it everyday. I should have been screaming Sterling Brown’s name at the top of my lungs. I should have been out on a highly trafficked street corner with a sign that said, “Justice for Sterling” every evening during rush hour. But I didn’t do any of that. I felt angry on behalf of Brown, then considered that was enough, and moved on, like most white people are prone to do in cases of racial injustice.
The second reason I forgot about Sterling Brown is because he is not a particularly impressive player. Brown is the fourth-string shooting guard on the Milwaukee Bucks, one of the premiere teams in the NBA. He is a bench player who averages a little over 16 minutes per game and does not come close to breaking double digits in any one statistical category on a team that is saturated with talent and has the league MVP. Brown is a forgettable player, which is why his story did not garner much attention afterwards.
Sterling Brown is a world class athlete in a professional basketball league, but he is a lower-tier player, which makes him relatively unknown. He straddles the barrier between prominent public figure and average citizen, which is why his story garnered initial attention but drifted from public consciousness days later. Professional athletes are traditionally revered in American culture. However, Brown’s profession could not save him from a violent stop-and-frisk.
Brown’s story was reminiscent of a similar atrocity that befell tennis player James Blake. Blake, a man of mixed race origin with an African-American father and a British mother, was one of the top American players of his generation, achieving ten career titles, a ranking as high as number four in the world, and nearly $8 million in prize money. On September 9, 2015, Blake was exiting his hotel in New York City when a plainclothes officer of the NYPD threw him down to the sidewalk, handcuffed him, and arrested him for having the description of a suspect of interest staying in the same hotel. He was released from custody the same day. Blake’s status as a top tennis player could not save him from racial profiling and police brutality, because being a top player in a sport Americans do not care about is of comparable status to being a middling player in a sport Americans watch. Blake’s Harvard education could not save him, nor his wealth. All that mattered to that officer was that he fit the description. By the way, the crime of the suspect for which the officer was violently seizing Blake was credit-card fraud.
Brown’s and Blake’s arrests prompt the question: can iconic, prominent black athletes experience the same sort of racial injustice at the hands of the police? Giannis Attentounkmpo, Brown’s Bucks teammate, might be the perfect hypothetical for this thought experiment. Giannis is one of the best players in the league, and has a highly recognizable face due to the media attention and endorsements he has received. Also, Giannis is 6’11” (compared to Brown’s modest 6’5”) and has a Greek accent. It would be nearly impossible to mistake Giannis for nearly any other person on earth. And yet, does anyone believe that Giannis would be immune from the same lived experience as every other black person in America? Racism is so deeply ingrained in the institution of policing in America that Giannis could have easily been brutalized for the color of his skin. As one of the cops who arrested Brown taunted, “I don’t follow the Bucks.”
This is why black athletes protest. They know that not even their wealth and prominence as public figures can save them from the harsh lived experiences and atrocities of any average person of color in our country, and they will continue to use their platform to express that. Colin Kaepernick is an easily recognizable public figure, but his NFL comrades in kneeling, such as Houston Texans wide receiver Kenny Stills, New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, and free agent safety Eric Reid are not as distinguishable. Those are three talented players who receive plenty of media attention for both their play and their protests, and not one of them is immune from wrongful arrest or brutalization at the hands of the police. We have heard the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others who have been murdered by the police. Yet, there are exponentially more people of color who have been harmed by the police or experienced other forms of racism, which includes athletes and celebrities.
It has been two and a half weeks since the country erupted in righteous fury after the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, but it has been two and a half years since Sterling Brown stood tall in the face of a traumatizing experience with the Milwaukee police. He remembers his pain, and he knows the pain of every person of color in this country. Now the white basketball fans who thought and forgot about Brown’s story are recognizing that pain too.