About fifteen years ago, I sprinted across a finish line, put my hands down on my knees, and waited for the sound of blood to stop rushing through my ears. I don’t remember what the event was, but whatever it was, I’d won it. I took one last breath, and looked up. My father was over by the gate, and he was talking to an older dude in a black track suit. Both of them were pointing at me.
I walked over to the gate, and my father introduced me to his new friend. His name was Mr. Carlos. Apparently Mr. Carlos was a track coach, and used to run professionally himself.
‘Hey partner,’ Mr. Carlos said,
‘Good race. I like your style.’
I smiled at that last compliment, because I knew exactly what he meant.
Back then, I didn’t like running so much as I liked theatrics. I was the fastest distance runner in my city by age 14, and I liked showing off. I didn’t bother running for time. I’d chase the lead guy for an entire race, staying behind him in second place, then popping in front of him for a few steps, then letting him overtake me — gauging just how fast this guy actually was.
Toying with him.
Then in the last two hundred meters, I’d swing around him in the turn, and burn him in the straightaway, running the last hundred meters like a sprinter. I liked hearing the crowd scream, I liked gambling.
I liked winning.
Anyway, Mr. Carlos had some things he wanted to tell me.
Honestly, I can’t remember most of it. I remember some snippets, but at one point, he said something that conflicted with my usual training regimen. I interrupted him, and started to tell him how I preferred to train, and how well it worked for me.
He looked at me, and frowned:
‘Look, brother. Forget all this track stuff, you need to learn how to listen.’
I shut my mouth. I heard the blood rushing through my ears again. Throughout my four year track career, I won a lot of races, lost a few, and almost got in a couple fights. But that one line is my clearest memory. I have trouble remembering much of anything else.
. . .
…Wait, hold on a second. I’ll come back to Mr. Carlos in a bit. But first, this:
Last week, the Mendocino High girls’ basketball team in northern California was kicked out of a winter tournament.
They’d been wearing ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts to games for their warmups, like Lebron James and friends have been recently. But school officials told them that if they didn’t promise not to wear the shirts, they wouldn’t be able to play.
The Mendocino girls refused. So they were banned from the tournament.
In their defense, the principal of the host school said that the shirts were being banned for ‘safety’ reasons. She also warned that any spectators that protested the T-shirt ban would also be asked to leave.
Uh, wait, hold on.
I never really introduced Mr. Carlos properly. The Mr. Carlos I met is the gentleman on the rightmost podium in the pictures below:
Maybe you’ve seen these. They’re from the 1968 Olympics, after the 200m sprint. That’s Mr. John Carlos in third place, and Mr. Tommie Smith in first. They took off their shoes to represent poverty, wore beads to represent those who had been lynched fighting for their rights, and, well — those black gloves were an obvious Black Power salute. While the US national anthem played, they bowed their heads and silently raised their hands.
For this, they were banned from the rest of the Olympics, they received death threats, and they came home in disgrace.
But in the years since, the world has come around, and realized that what John Carlos and Tommie Smith did was brave and necessary. The two men are regularly featured in documentaries, books, murals, and statues.
Even the International Olympic Committee, an organization that under then-president Avery Brundage did everything they could to erase that scene from official record, now features very positive words on their website about the two men, as well as other black artists that raised their fists:
While a rule was broken, the demonstration itself provided a small contribution to another Olympic principle of fighting against any form of discrimination.
Within the space of a few decades, the public impression of that act of protest has gone from widespread hatred to almost universal admiration.
So, let’s get back to those girls and their banned ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts.
If we take the example of the 1968 Olympics, there’s a precedent for what’s happening at that high school basketball tournament. We’re in the middle of a four-step process that seems to repeat pretty often.
Here are the steps:
- Somebody makes a protest against an injustice
- People get offended, because they would rather not have to think about injustices during their entertainment time, so they
- ask protestors to ‘take their politics elsewhere’. And then, years later,
- They realize they were wrong.
We may still be at #3 right now, but it’s pretty clear that history is going to repeat itself, and a lot of people are going to be on the wrong side of history again.
Hell, in 2050, the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirt might be a hipster nostalgia item, just like the ’68 Olympics picture is today.
This case even has legal precedent — in 1969, a bunch of kids started wearing black armbands to school in protest of the war in Vietnam, and the Supreme Court had to step in to to say that ‘It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’
And in 2015, as it turns out, we all have a fairly positive view of those kids, because after years of shame and silence, we’ve finally accepted that we were wrong about the war in Vietnam.
. . .
It’s also telling that Principal Walker of Fort Bragg High is blaming her rules on a preoccupation with safety. She released a written statement that said that it is ‘necessary to ensure that all political statements and or protests are kept away’ from the tournament, because
‘We are a small school district that simply does not have the resources to ensure the safety and well-being of our staff, students and guests at the tournament should someone get upset and choose to act out.’
Essentially, Principal Walker is saying that she ‘doesn’t want any trouble’. She probably doesn’t realize that, less than fifty years ago, that was the same line they used in the Jim Crow South:
I don’t mind if you sit at this lunch counter, colored fella, but the other customers might. We don’t want any trouble.
I don’t mind if your little black girl comes to our all-white school, but the parents of the other students might. We’re a small district.
We don’t want any trouble.
Someone out there might be uncomfortable, somebody out there might be racist, and cause some kind of undetermined trouble.
I’m not racist, but other people are, so don’t stir things up, okay?
Precisely how big, powerful, and resourceful does a school district need to be to support its students? What sorts of resources would Principal Walker think are needed to provide an environment where kids feel comfortable saying what is on their mind?
Guns? LRADs? Tanks?
Why not just admit that being forced to face reality at a kid’s sports game makes us uncomfortable? Why not just admit that we’re not particularly concerned with dead black children, and that we are too scared to stick to the morals we push in the classroom?
Why not just tell the truth?
Also, Walker should be careful labeling things ‘political statements’.
After all, rejecting uncomfortable things by labeling them ‘political’ also has precedent in the 1968 Olympics. The official reason given for banning Tommie Smith and John Carlos was that the Olympics are no place for a political statement, much less something that was a ‘Nazi-like salute’.
It’s ironic that the AP writer that wrote that article in 1968 made that Nazi comparison, because three decades before, IOC president Avery Brundage had supported the 1936 Olympic games being held in Nazi Germany. He’d also had no problem with the Nazi ‘Heil Hitler’ salute, but he was furious at the ‘the nasty demonstration against the American flag by Negroes’.
The difference between the Nazi salute and the Black Power salute, apparently, was that the Nazi salute was a nationally-sponsored custom, while there was no black ‘nation’. That is, because the Nazis were an internationally recognized, official government, their salute was not political — it was neutral, or patriotic. But a couple of minorities raising their hands was political.
So, if you’re in favor of banning a ‘political’ message from a sports arena, or a classroom, or anything, you’re going to have to admit that for you, ‘political’ is anything non-mainstream, even if that mainstream is unjust. You’ll also have to admit that you believe that the only appropriate form of self-expression is something that is government-sanctioned.
That’s a fairly scary slippery slope.
So, since I started off this thing bragging about my track career, let me give you the rest of the story.
As it turns out, I was the fastest in my city, but one step outside the city limits waited an entire squadron of runners that I could barely keep up with. I wasn’t on my way to the Olympics — hell, I never managed to get to the State finals. A combination of teenage angst, overworking from coaches, and my own limitations as an athlete led to me blowing off most of my senior year, and ruining any chances I had at success as a college athlete. I was probably quick enough to be a mediocre addition to my university’s team, but they never came calling, and I never bothered to try out.
I wasn’t cut out to be a track champion, and Mr. John Carlos probably knew that just by looking at me.
But I think he saw an opportunity to teach a hard-headed young kid a lesson — that sometimes, even if you think you know everything, there’s someone out there with more context.
That if all you’re looking at is the present, and you’re unable to understand history, that you’re going to miss things.
That most of the best lessons in life come when you’d rather not hear them.
And that sometimes, you need to forget about all this running stuff, or all this basketball stuff, and listen.
I just figured I’d pass on the message.
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