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Michael Bennett Speaks Out About Trauma of Growing Up Black in America & His “Emmett Till Moment”

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When Michael Bennett was 12 years old, James Byrd was lynched in Jasper, Texas. The African-American man was brutally murdered by white supremacists who chained him to the back of their truck by his ankles and dragged him for more than three miles along the road. By the time the men untied his body from the back of the truck, Byrd’s head and right arm had been severed. Michael Bennett calls this killing his “Emmett Till moment.” We speak with the NFL player and activist about his childhood and the influence of his mother.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. Michael, 20 years ago this month, on June 7th, 1998, James Byrd was brutally murdered by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. Three white men chained the African-American man to the back of their truck by his ankles, dragged him for more than three miles along the road. By the time the men untied his body from the back of the truck, Byrd’s head and right arm had been severed. You write about James Byrd in your book, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, and you talk about this seminal moment in your life, 20 years ago, when you heard what happened. Born in Louisiana, you grew up in Texas.

MICHAEL BENNETT: Yeah. I think, for me, it was the Emmett Till moment. It was the moment that, as a young kid, I came to the realization that, you know, sometimes being black was going to be an issue, you know. And so, for me, it was a very traumatic moment to think that like, “Am I safe in my being? Am I safe in this skin? Can I do normal things? Am I able to go grab a cappuccino and be seen as a customer and not as a—you know, as a robber? You know, when they see me, do they see me as a man first and not as a criminal?”

And for me, that chapter in my book was very important, because I wanted to bring that into the light for other people who don’t have to deal with those things. You know, for a man, he doesn’t understand what it’s like for a woman to be walking at night, you know, because automatically he comes to the realization like, “Oh, she shouldn’t be walking at night.” It’s like, you can’t do that. You can’t victimize the victim, you know. It’s a lot of times that, as an African-American person or a brown person, they’ve been victimized simply because the color of their skin. And so, for us, it’s always hard to like—to try to get people to understand that or listen.

And in that chapter, I just wanted to share like this is how I felt, like this is what it—when I was a young child. You know, as a 7-year-old, 9-year-old, you shouldn’t feel like that. The things that you should be thinking about: How can I put this Lego together and create something? How can I play this Nintendo? Not about “Am I going to be OK? Am I going to be safe? Am I going to be—am I going to be killed? Am I going to be judged because of the way I’ve looked?” And I think, as a young kid, when you have that awakening, it’s hard for you to really grow up in America and see the world as a child, you know, see the world as like Legos, colors, all these different things. It’s hard to see that when you see something so young, and your parents have to break it down to you.

You know, I hate to have to take that wall down. It’s like when you—the first time, as a kid, when you hear that Santa Claus isn’t real, it’s like the world is like it’s shooken, you know? And when you find out that your skin is going to be a weapon used against you, you get shooken. You get in a way that you just—you’re getting hardened as a person, because you know every time you step into a room, people are going to judge you. And I think that’s the hardest thing to do for a young male.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering, going along that vein, talking about—in the book, you talk about your life growing up in Texas and some of the things also that influenced you. Your father worked for Enron at the time that Enron collapsed. That had an impact on you, how you saw corporate America.

MICHAEL BENNETT: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, I’m wondering if you could talk about your experience in college. Both you and your brother were at Texas A&M. But you’ve referred to the NCAA in college sports as a gangster operation.

MICHAEL BENNETT: Yeah, it is. So, you know, the first time I ever got introduced to like the corporate world was Enron, all of a sudden. My dad had put so much into this company. It was the first time that I realized, like, you can’t put so much into a company, because companies don’t have souls. They don’t have empathy. They don’t have compassion. They’ve just got a bottom line. It was the first time that I realized that as a child, because my dad did everything. He was on time. He was, you know—and all of a sudden it was taken from us. It was taken. It was something that we loved. It was our world. And then, all of a sudden it was gone.

And, you know, so, the NCAA was no different. It has no empathy. It has no compassion. It doesn’t have a soul. It’s just—it’s a corporate being. You know, it doesn’t care about the children that it affects. It just needs to get to the Fiesta Bowl, all these different bowls, to get their revenue. And for me, being in the NCAA at the time, we all realized these different things, because we would see our jerseys in the stores. We would see that the stadium was filled with massive amounts of people. It was 80,000 people. Tickets are $200 a pop. You know, we were like, “Whoa! Can we get our cut?” You know? And so, that was when we realized that we had no voice. We had—all we had was this idea that we were getting this piece of paper, but we were getting no compensation for what we were doing.

And so many athletes that I’ve played with, the ones who didn’t get a chance to make it to the NFL, they’ve dealt with a lot of identity problems, because their identity was tied up in the sport. They weren’t allowed to grow and evolve as human beings, because everything that they were allowed to do was like, “Hey, I want to”—”Oh, come back over here.” You know, like, “Oh, I want to venture”—”No, you don’t need to think like that. You need to think like this. Look straight ahead. Keep your eyes on the prize.” And so, for a lot of—for being in the NCAA, you saw that a lot.

And when you’re dealing with something that when you come from, you know, a certain background or a certain part of Texas or a certain part of the community, and you come into this white community as an athlete, it’s really hard to survive, when it comes to that, because all of a sudden you go from a place where you see a lot of people who look like you, and they understand your cultural background, they understand your appearance, they understand how you live, how you talk, and then, all of a sudden, you get to a place where you’re just a 1 percent of the whole place. And everything that you do, people are telling you that that’s wrong, you shouldn’t speak like that, you shouldn’t talk like that, you can’t wear your clothes like that. All those skinny jeans are in now, but at the time skinny jeans weren’t in, and I was like I don’t want to wear skinny jeans at that time. But it’s just a real corporate entity when it comes to—you know, when it comes to sports.

AMY GOODMAN: Feminism is extremely important to you. Can you talk about your mother raising you and Martellus, who just left the Patriots?

MICHAEL BENNETT: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Also a famous football player. Talk about her and when she had you, and your own family, your wife and girls.

MICHAEL BENNETT: Yeah. So, my story is kind of complicated, because my mom had me at 16 years old. So I think about that all the time as a parent. Like, my mom had four kids before she was 21. That’s kind of like—that’s a big deal. And that’s a hard thing to deal with. You know, so my parents ended up getting divorced, and so I was raised by my stepmother, who was a graduate and has a master’s degree in education and business. And so, I grew up—my mother went to Grambling University. So, we grew up, and my mother—

AMY GOODMAN: Historically black college.

MICHAEL BENNETT: Yeah. So, and my mom was—she’s been a teacher for over 20 years in the community, you know, fighting against all kinds of things inside our community. And she’s just been a real pillar in our community as far as education. So I grew up a lot of times giving back and going to school and helping kids, doing a lot of different things. So, growing up with my brother, that was the same way. We always were doing stuff like that. So, it’s no—things haven’t changed. And my brother, you know, he’s such a creative genius when it comes to finding ways to impact the world, I think. When it comes to creativity, I think he’s just—you know, there’s never been an athlete who thinks like the way that he does, and he finds ways to give back in his own way. So, it’s a very—it’s a very unique conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts when President Trump talked about football players as “sons of”—well, the B-word, rhymes with “hitches.”

MICHAEL BENNETT: Hitches or ditches or snitches or stitches. But, sorry, I sound like Dr. Seuss right now, but you led me on. But at the time I felt a sense of calm. And so I was kind of like, “Should I go on the attack of this, or should I do the opposite, you know, continuously do work and don’t get in no war of words?” And I think, for me, I just wanted to express that my mom is not a son of a—you know, she is a woman of color who is a woman who’s been dedicated to her community. And that’s what I wanted to express. It wasn’t something trying to go back and talk about his mother, because I respect women. You know, I respect women and what they’ve been through. And that’s how I became a feminist, is because of my mother, the way that she does—how does she do things. And I think when he said that, I just wanted to express that my mom is a confident woman who is committed to her community, so…

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering your thoughts on what’s happened to Colin Kaepernick and the price that he’s had to pay as a result of his outspokenness. And do you think that that’s—the owners now have realized that they can’t continue to do that, or do you think that they’re just like stepping back for a while?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I mean, what happened to Colin Kaepernick is just a pure tragedy. I think a guy—it’s hard when you love something so much, you put everything into it, and it’s been taken away from you for all the wrong reasons, when you’re doing all the right things. And I think when you talk about leadership, a lot of guys—a lot of coaches would be like, “Oh, we don’t want a guy who’s like that.” But at the same time, there’s a whole bunch of guys who have dealt with domestic abuse, who have done—you know, caught with marijuana, gun charges, all types of different things, but we allow these type of people to be upheld as great citizens. But when a person stands up for something they believe in, in a positive manner, I think you watching him do that has just been devastating for a lot of players. It took the air out of a lot of people’s chest, because we loved him for how he was doing this thing and how he was doing it in a peaceful manner.

And I think now the NFL is kind of realizing like the fans and people—because they took him out the league, it doesn’t change his impact. I think his impact has been even greater because people realize the tragedy of what’s happened to him and that he’s still putting on a lot of work. And I think a lot of the employers are realizing that, so they’re trying to find ways to find a ways to have impact, because the players aren’t letting his name die in vain. They continuously bring up the conversation. They’re continuously doing a lot of work. So…

AMY GOODMAN: Could you see yourself taking a knee? I mean, that picture of you, Martin Luther King between you and Colin, all taking a knee, something you certainly did with the Seattle Seahawks. Can you see doing that with the Philadelphia Eagles?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I don’t think—I think, at this point, it’s not so much about gestures anymore. I think it’s really about starting to understand the true problems that are happening around the world, and trying to find ways to build bridges and start to do more community work and bringing and challenging the NFL to do more things within the community. I think sometimes when you do a gesture, people get lost in the gesture. “Is he going to do this?” And people forget about the work. So it’s about connecting the fans and people around to see what we’re doing in the work.

I think everybody wants to pick a—pick and say, “If they don’t take a knee, then they’re not doing the work.” And I think that’s the misconception, because there’s a lot of athletes doing work. And so, that’s the thing that I really try to focus on, is the work and the impact, I think, not to get caught up in “Is he going to take a knee? Or is he going to do this? Is he going to do the latest dance or the latest trend? Is he going to put his hand behind his head?” It’s more about how can we impact it.

And I think when you talk about taking a knee, we’ve done that. We’ve impacted the world. The next step is what’s new. You know, actually, that’s what I think is like—what’s the next step? I think by people trying to tell us what to do, it now gives us—it has to make us more creative in finding ways to protest and be more peaceful.

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Michael Bennett on Concussions & Brain Injuries in NFL: “Fans Need to Stop Dehumanizing Players”

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