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NFL Star Michael Bennett on Refusing to Go to Israel, Black Lives Matter & His Love for Angela Davis

StoryFebruary 24, 2017
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In a Democracy Now! exclusive, we speak with Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, who made headlines when he pulled out of an Israeli government-sponsored trip to Israel for NFL players. We are also joined by Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine. The two discuss the role of sports in politics, including Olympian John Carlos, as well as Colin Kaepernick’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement that inspired players throughout the country at all levels to take similar actions.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to our Democracy Now! exclusive. Earlier this month, professional football star Michael Bennett made headlines when he pulled out of an Israeli government-sponsored trip to Israel for NFL players. In an open letter, Bennett, who plays for the Seattle Seahawks, wrote, “One of my heroes has always been Muhammad Ali. I know that Ali always stood strongly with the Palestinian people, visiting refugee camps, going to rallies, and always willing to be a 'voice for the voiceless.' I want to be a 'voice for the voiceless' and I cannot do that by going on this kind of trip to Israel.” Bennett’s words struck a chord with his teammates. In the end, only five out of the original 13 players ended up traveling as ambassadors of goodwill for Israel.

Well, yesterday, I spoke with Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin, a sports editor for The Nation magazine. I began by asking Michael Bennett about his decision not to go to Israel.

MICHAEL BENNETT: I decided not to go because, you know, doing some—my research on Palestine and Israel and all the things that were going on, I’ve seen so many similarities between the Black Lives movement and the Palestinian movement. And, you know, I figured if I was going to go to Israel, I should be able to go see both sides. And, you know, I didn’t want to be an ambassador for a certain government if I wasn’t sure if I agree with everything the government was doing. So I thought it would be better to go on my own time, you know, and figure out my own situation when I get there.

AMY GOODMAN: How did this trip end up getting planned?

MICHAEL BENNETT: You know, they contacted us during the last year in the summertime, and, you know, they were talking about this trip. And I thought it was just more of like a trip that you get to go see Israel. I didn’t know it was like an ambassador trip and all the extra stuff. So, you know, once I found out about that, some of my friends called me and was like, “Oh, did you know this? And did you know that?” And when they called me, I just decided to—you know, I was like, “Oh, well, I can’t. I can’t do this. I don’t want to be an ambassador for something that I don’t agree with.”

AMY GOODMAN: Michael, what kind of response did you get to posting that letter?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I think I got—I mean, it was very—I feel like there were some people that thought I was anti-Semitic, and so they were like getting mad. And I was like, “No, I’m not against any Jewish people or any—I’m not against anybody, when it comes to people.” But, you know, they seemed—they thought I was anti-Semitic. But I wasn’t. You know, I was just saying that when I do go to Israel, I would love to see Palestine, too.

And, you know, I got a lot of great things. I think a lot of people tweeted, emailed all kinds of things and said they were proud, you know, that an athlete stood for something that was going on in the world. And I think when the things that are going on in America at the same time, the things that are going around the whole world and Palestine, all across, and, you know, I just wanted to be—if I do be an ambassador, it’ll be for the goodwill of the world, the things that are going on around the world. And they’re so similar to the things that are going on in America, whether we’re talking about Ferguson or we’re talking about Baltimore or Eric Garner. Just, you know, there’s a lot of things that are going on here that are similar to things that are going on in Palestine. And once I did so much research and started reading and seeing the similarities, I knew that I couldn’t go on this trip.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Muhammad Ali in your letter. I wanted to go to a clip of Muhammad Ali in his own words.

MUHAMMAD ALI: My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother or some darker people, some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big, powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me. They didn’t rob me of my nationality and rape and kill my mother and father. Why would I want to—shoot them for what? I got to go shoot them, those little poor little black people, little babies and children, women. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Muhammad Ali as he protested the war in Vietnam. What does Muhammad Ali mean to you, Michael?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I think that Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for all athletes to, you know, use their platform for good. And I think, as an athlete, a lot of times, you know, you get caught in the marketing situation where you’re marketing for so many brands that you forget that you are a person and that there’s things that’s going on that, with just some words that you speak, you can inspire young kids to make decisions, or you could bring awareness to things that are going on. So, Muhammad Ali, he just inspires me just to be the voice for the voiceless, like, you know, to be able to use my platform. And this generation is so different from back then, when, you know, protesting and rallies and all kinds of things, you had to go out and find 500,000 people and get them to follow you and do all this kind of things to share your message. But now, you know, just with the click of a button on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, you can reach a million people, and you can share your message. And when you share your message, you can change a lot of lives.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, the Israel trip was right around the time that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, came to the United States and had a news conference with Donald Trump. And it’s the president that I want to talk to you about right now. Your thoughts on President Trump?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I mean, you know, is it a—growing up, you know, you see all these different things. And when he became the president, I was like, “Oh, this is really—this is really happening.” I think a lot of people were shocked. And, you know, me, for a man with three daughters, and I see the things that—you know, he talks about women. And I see the women moving and the movement, you know, and I just don’t agree with a lot of the things that he says or really does. I think, you know, you think about building a wall, when America is built from immigrants and by immigrants, and a lot of things that are done by them and so many great people. I think I just disagree with a lot of his policies and his terms. And, you know, I hope that he realizes that it takes a—it takes everybody to have a place like America. It takes people from Chinese descent, African descent, Italian descent, Irish descent, Spanish, Native American—it takes everybody to, you know, have a country like this. And I just disagree with the way that he handles the people, you know, the women, the immigrants. I just think—you know, I don’t think he thinks about the choices and the mindset that he creates for younger people that might disagree with somebody, and they just go out and they want to disrespect them for not being the same.

AMY GOODMAN: Your brother, Martellus Bennett, who plays for the New England Patriots, was also just in the headlines. Five teammates of his and him—he began this all—said they won’t visit the White House for the traditional Super Bowl celebration, as a protest against Donald Trump. Do you support his decision? Can you talk about how he came to that, and your thoughts on it, as well?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I definitely support his decision. I think when a person has to deal with, you know, a lot of ridicule coming from their decision, and they still make the decision, I think they’re a strong person. I think, you know, I definitely agree with him for making his stand. I don’t know exactly why he—I know he disagrees with a lot of stuff that Trump says, so I think that’s the reason why he doesn’t want to go. And I think he doesn’t want to support something that’s a system that’s keeping people of color down, a systematic system that is keeping people of color down. I think he doesn’t want to participate in that. And I could understand that.

AMY GOODMAN: You also mentioned John Carlos in your letter to the world explaining why you wouldn’t go on this Israel government-sponsored trip. I wanted to go to Dave Zirin’s documentary film Not Just a Game, which features an interview with John Carlos, who famously raised his fist in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

JOHN CARLOS: All we ask for is equal chance to be a human being. And, as far as I see now, we’re five steps below the ladder, and every time we try and touch the ladder, they put their foot on our hands and don’t want us to climb up.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was John Carlos back then, soon after he raised his fist in the Black Power salute. And I’m going to also play a clip of John Carlos today, in our studios at Democracy Now!, when he came to visit us.

JOHN CARLOS: Mr. Smith and I, we took various artifacts out there to try and illustrate certain points that we wanted to get across to society, which we really never got a chance to expose to the general public. But we wore the black glove out there primarily because this is the first time the Olympics was in color, Technicolor. So we wanted to be no doubt as to who we were representing first. We were representing our race first, and then we was representing the United States second.

AMY GOODMAN: That was John Carlos describing what he did in 1968. Michael Bennett, he suffered enormously over the years. It hurt his career. He got tremendous both criticism, but, over the decades, has been prouder and prouder of what he has done. What did that action mean to you? And do you feel repercussions for standing up, you know, whether we’re talking about endorsements or repercussions from the NFL?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I think—I think when John Carlos did that, I don’t think the world was ready for what he did. I think now the world is ready for change. You see so many different people, of all different ethnicities, marching, doing everything together. And I think, with technology, you know, you can share your message. I think when he did that, I think, you know, repercussions of what he did, I thought, yeah, it probably hindered his career or the things that happened to him, but ultimately, like you said—I mean, I think in sports sometime, people, you know, identify with the—your legacy with how many touchdowns you get, how many yards you score or how many medals you win, how many dunks you get, how many grand slams you win. But, ultimately, I feel like your legacy is definitely, you know, how many kids you can reach in your community, how much change can you make, because at the end of the day, the records are being broken, but that fist that he held up is still staying the same. It’s a stagnant picture forever. People remember that fist being something. People don’t remember who won the 1979 gold medal or the 1985 gold medal, but they remember that moment when he put his fist up.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michael Bennett, a Seattle Seahawks defensive end, outspoken on everything from politics in the world to what’s happening within the NFL. We’re also joined by Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine, also host of Edge of Sports. Dave, how unusual is Michael and Martellus, the Bennett brothers, I mean, in being quite fearless in speaking out?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, I think Michael Bennett is a person of uncommon character. I think folks hear that. But while he’s a person of uncommon character, he is also a part of a wave of athletes who are speaking out right now and have been speaking out over the last several years. And I think this is happening because of a perfect storm of reasons, everything from the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement to the influence of social media, to the fact that there are just people in the streets right now absolutely fed up with what’s happening both in this country and in the world. And we have to remember that athletes don’t live in this hermetically sealed chamber apart from this, like Michael Bennett spoke about. I mean, he has daughters, and there is a misogynist and sexual harasser in the White House. You can’t be apart from that. Or the fact that, you know, Michael Bennett is somebody who reads the work of Angela Davis. I know that about Michael. And Angela Davis just wrote a book called Freedom is a Constant Struggle, that connects the issues of Ferguson and Palestine.

MICHAEL BENNETT: It’s a really good book.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah. And we can’t speak about the issue—as Angela Davis argues, we can’t speak about Black Lives Matter in this country without looking at it globally. And that’s what Michael Bennett did, in terms of applying that political analysis to this trip, that was being sent over to hype brand Israel and create goodwill ambassadors. So these things are connected to much broader struggles, but at the same time, it still takes those individuals, just like John Carlos raising his fist in 1968, just like Colin Kaepernick taking that knee. It still takes those individuals who are willing to stand up and speak out and share with the world what it is they’re learning and experiencing. And that’s what makes Michael Bennett unique, but at the same time, as we’re seeing, courage is contagious. So when Michael Bennett speaks out, you see the ripple effect across the NFL, across the sports world and across sports fandom, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave just raises this issue of Colin Kaepernick, who really electrified the country, and I don’t know if he started a movement, but certainly added power to a movement, the decision to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Michael Bennett, your thoughts on what Colin did and the effect it had on you?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I mean, to be honest, I really didn’t think that that movement would be coming from Colin Kaepernick. I thought it would probably be coming from somewhere else in the NFL. I just—I think I was blindsided when it was him. Like, when it was him who made that decision to—you know, to do it, I was like, “Wow! Kaepernick is like—he’s like on a whole 'nother level right now. He's trying to change—he’s trying to make a conversation about something that should have been had a conversation about a long time ago.” And when he took that knee, it just—it just made me realize that, you know, when he did that and the way that he touched—made people speak around the world about this, it was like, “Wow! Athletes really do have this platform that a lot of people just want to hear.” And when he made that decision to do that, I think it changed a lot of lives. I think it brought out some ugliness in people, but it also brought out some beauty in some people. And I think, for us, for me personally, it just challenged me to be—to even, you know, join him and try to make it—try to make everything in his message more—make it where people understand and they want to be a part of it, where young kids are speaking about it, too.

For me, the greatest thing about what he did wasn’t that the adults were having a conversation about it; it was that the young people were having a conversation about it. It was the 10-year-old, 9-year-old teams. You know, they’re not even getting paid in the NFL, and they just—they’re fearless. They’re taking a knee. And they don’t even know—they understand why they’re taking a knee, but at the same time, they really don’t understand the magnitude of what they’re doing. And then you take the middle school teams that are taking a knee, and there’s not even a lot of fans in the stadium, but they’re taking that knee. And you see high school people doing it, and you see college people doing it. Then you see guys in the NFL doing it. And it’s like, man, that started a fire. And the greatest thing was that the young kids were aware, starting to be awoke about things that are going on, and more aware. And I thought that was the coolest part about all of it. It was that the young people—the seed that he planted with the young people, it started growing, and it caught—started growing like fire and just started growing like weeds everywhere. And it was special. I think that, you know, he did something really special. And really, it all started with a knee. And that’s the funniest part about it. And I think it was—I think it was a great—and it was a great thing.

AMY GOODMAN: And you had the students at Mizzou, at the University of Missouri, Black Lives Matter activists demanding change, ultimately toppled their president when the college football team said they wouldn’t play until the president left.

MICHAEL BENNETT: What those kids did was, and Missouri, was the truth of it all: People are the power. I think people have so much power when they connect together and they have a belief in something. I think, truly, if you look at all the great philosophers or the people that wrote—the people there before us, the revolutionaries, the people that wanted to create change—and, you know, they talk about solidarity. And to have solidarity among young people to really, you know, put their minds together and join together and say, “Look, this is going to change. This is what’s going to change,” and come and go and force the president out, I think that was—that was just the most amazing thing of the whole year.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael, you mentioned Angela Davis before. I wanted to go to a clip of her. This was the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. He had about 180,000 people at his inauguration. The next day, there was at least three times that number of people in Washington, not to mention—


AMY GOODMAN: —the millions of people who were protesting all over the country. This is Angela Davis speaking at that protest.

ANGELA DAVIS: Over the next months and years, we will be called upon to intensify our demands for social justice, to become more militant in our defense of vulnerable populations. Those who still defend the supremacy of white, male heteropatriarchy had better watch out. The next 1,459 days of the Trump administration will be 1,459 days of resistance.

AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, speaking on January 21st, the day after the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. Michael Bennett, her significance in your life and in your family’s life in terms of being a model?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I think, you know, she’s just a—to me, she is just a—besides my wife, I just—I just love everything about her. I think when you have a person that, you know, speaks their mind no matter what, regardless of the backlash to—and the things that she’s been through. I mean, there’s a lot of times that people talk to you, but they’ve never been through anything, and they never really fought that fight. They just speak about it. But I think, for her, she actually genuinely is on the ground daily. Her daily fight, her daily struggle, her daily everything, is to make change in life. Whether it’s in Australia for women’s—for women in jail, whether it’s here for political prisoners, whether it’s here for Black Lives Matter, whether it’s in Palestine, it’s just her whole life is about how to create change. And I think that’s important.

I think she just encourages me to be able to, you know, really dedicate my life to try to make change. And it really—really, everything else doesn’t really matter if there’s always a system that keeps certain people down. Nothing really matters if—how many touchdowns I score, if another black kid is shot and killed. Doesn’t matter how many sacks I get, if the education system is unfair for black youth or people of color youth. Doesn’t matter how many times I hit Tom Brady or any other quarterback, if there’s a wall being built. You know what I mean? So, and she just gives me power to just go out there and just speak how I feel, you know, also educate myself on the things.

I mean, I think she’s just a great role model for young women, even if you don’t agree with her message or you don’t agree with the things that she says. But you cannot—you can’t disagree with her courage. You can’t disagree with her ability to speak and make a movement. You can’t disagree with her ability to organize. And I think that’s what young people have to really look up to her, is how do we organize, how do we come together and try to create change. And I think with her doing all the things she’s done, it just motivates us to just keep growing and know that there is a possibility that we can link up as people, not even looking at color. We’re just looking to link and connect as people and growing and try to make change and not let, you know, the government do what they want to us, you know, give us a chance to go out there and just speak our mind and get the young people to take a step forward. I think she’s just a courageous person. And I get goosebumps whenever I talk—you know, whenever I talk to her or if I just listen to her messages that she spoke or if I’m just reading the book. You know, reading one of her books, it just motivates me.

AMY GOODMAN: As you talk about speaking up, what are your thoughts, finally, on the crackdown on immigrants right now, the attempt to build the wall on the southern border of the United States and the Muslim ban? It’s something that really President Trump has used to describe what took place.

MICHAEL BENNETT: I think, to be honest, I disagree with it all. I think, you know, this country was built on immigrants, if you think, from African Americans coming from Africa, being enslaved and building all the things that they built, you know, the White House, all the things that they built. Then you go to the Asians. They’re here. They built all the railroads, built all the things on the West Coast. The Spanish, who built all these different things. And Native Americans, who built all these different things. To the labor on the backs of slaves and the labor of immigrants. And I think, at this point, you know, they should definitely not be kicked out, because they’re the ones who built this place.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been surprised by all that President Trump has done in his first month in office, and also by the amount of resistance that he’s faced all over the country?

MICHAEL BENNETT: No, I’m not surprised by the resistance. I think this is a time—and there’s been so many different times where there’s been so many times for movements, whether it’s in the '60s, you know, during World War II or during Vietnam or during all these different times, you know, civil rights movements and all these movements. And I think this is a time where people are coming to agreeance that we're all just human beings, and we’re all part of the system, and it takes all of us to grow. So, the resistance to trying to divide us, no, I’m not surprised in it. I’m actually encouraged, and I’m just happy that everybody is starting to come together and have that full circle.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s NFL star Michael Bennett. He plays defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks, speaking to us from Honolulu, Hawaii. Michael Bennett recently pulled out of an Israeli government-sponsored trip to Israel for NFL players.

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