“Things That Make White People Uncomfortable”: NFL’s Michael Bennett on Kneeling for Racial Justice

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Over the past two seasons, dozens of National Football League players have knelt during the national anthem to protest police shootings of black teenagers and men like Antwon Rose, a 17-year-old unarmed African-American teenager who was shot dead by East Pittsburgh police last week. The NFL’s on-field protests began in August 2016 when quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem to protest racism and police brutality. The National Football League announced last month that it will fine teams if players refuse to stand for the national anthem before games. Under the new rules adopted by the league’s 32 owners, players will be allowed to stay in the locker room during the anthem. We speak with NFL three-time Pro Bowler and longtime activist Michael Bennett, who has been part of a movement, led by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, protesting police shootings of unarmed black men. Bennett was recently traded to the Super Bowl champions Philadelphia Eagles—the same team President Trump recently disinvited to the White House. He is the author of a new book, “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable.”

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In Pennsylvania Monday, hundreds of mourners attended the funeral of Antwon Rose, a 17-year-old African-American high school senior shot and killed last week by an East Pittsburgh police officer. Video of the shooting shows the teenager was shot in the back while trying to flee police after a traffic stop. Police have admitted he was unarmed. Rose was set to graduate from high school this year. The killing has sparked several days of protest in Pittsburgh.

AMY GOODMAN: At the funeral, held at Antwon’s high school, two of his friends struggled to read a poem Antwon had written about police brutality in 2016, titled “I Am Not What You Think!” That same poem was read by a protester at an earlier demonstration.

PROTESTER: I see mothers bury their sons / I want my mom to never feel that pain / I am confused and afraid / I pretend all is fine / I feel like I’m suffocating.

AMY GOODMAN: Antwon’s parents, Michelle Kenney and Antwon Rose Sr., spoke Sunday with Good Morning America. Kenney spoke about the significance of the poem.

MICHELLE KENNEY: That’s not just a poem. That is the life of many, many young African-American males. It was just that my son wrote it down and he lost his life. My son was truly a beautiful soul. Everyone has stood up. And I’m hoping that it changes the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The officer who shot Antwon Rose has been identified as Michael Rosfeld. He had been sworn in to the city’s police department just hours before the shooting. According to the Post-Gazette, Rosfeld left his last job at the University of Pittsburgh police after authorities discovered discrepancies between his sworn statement and evidence in an arrest. The woman who filmed Antwon’s killing said it appeared that Rosfeld, quote, “was taking target practice on this young man’s back.”

According to The Washington Post’s database of police shootings, Antwon is one of more than 500 people who have been killed this year by police officers. Last year, police shot dead 987 people.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now is NFL three-time Pro Bowler, longtime activist Michael Bennett, who has been part of a movement, led by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, protesting police shootings of unarmed black men. The on-field protests began in August of 2016, when Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. The protests spread throughout the NFL. Earlier this year, The New Yorker magazine ran a cover illustration showing Martin Luther King Jr. taking a knee in between Michael Bennett and Colin Kaepernick. While Kaepernick has essentially been blacklisted from the NFL, Michael Bennett is still playing and speaking out. He was recently traded to the Super Bowl champions Philadelphia Eagles—the same team President Trump recently disinvited from the White House. This all comes after the NFL owners recently ruled teams will be fined if players kneel during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality, though they can stay in the locker room. Well, Michael Bennett joins us here in studio. He has a new book; it’s called Things That Make White People Uncomfortable.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Michael.

MICHAEL BENNETT: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Appreciate you for having me here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Can you talk about the moment you decided to take the knee? Bring us back to that day. What was happening? You were with the Seattle Seahawks.

MICHAEL BENNETT: Yeah, I think it was just having empathy and compassion for what was going on in America. How do you have a human connection to what’s happening to people? How do you put yourself in their shoes? How do you, you know, feel for Michael Brown’s parents or Sandra Bland’s family or like so many different people who have been, you know, lives have been lost? And I think that’s what it really was really about, you know, Flint, Michigan. It was about Native American rights issues. It was about so many issues, whether it was about women’s rights or—it was just about so many things that were happening in America, and how do we create a platform to be able to have a voice for so many people who don’t have a voice.

It’s so much bigger than just the police brutality. There are so many issues that are happening that people are not aware of. And a lot of people who watch football, they just kind of just think that when you’re in that world, none of that exists. So we wanted to make sure that even though we’re playing in this league and we’re able to do these things on Sunday and we’re these athletes who win and where we get injured, we still are people. And we still are connected to the things and the issues that are happening around us. It could be our family. It could be our sisters. It could be our mothers. But at the same time, we want to be able to bring their stories to life.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what were some of the discussions between your fellow players as the protests kept expanding, and then, of course, as for—the league and then President Trump got involved in trying to stamp them out?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I think it was more about, you know, race. I think, in football, a team is built around people from different backgrounds, people of different religion. And, you know, we all agree on how we’re going to win this game and how we’re going to do what we could do on Sunday, but we all don’t agree about police brutality. We all don’t agree because all of us aren’t in the same situation when it comes to this. For some strange reason, when it comes to sports, we can come together for those things, but the real issues that we should—at hand, we can’t come together. And so, we try to make people understand, you know.

And for people who are not in those situations, it’s hard for them to listen, because they already are making assumptions about how people should feel. And at the end of the day, it’s not really about, you know, do we pick a side, is it the victim, or is it the police. It’s really just the people, the human aspect of it. And I think that’s what we were trying to connect with people. And I think a lot of people were disconnected between what was happening, because, you know, everybody wants to pick a side. Either you’re Democrat or you’re Republican. Nobody is really thinking about the human aspect of it all.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, President Trump abruptly called off the planned visit of your new team, the Philadelphia Eagles, tweeting, “Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!” he tweeted. While not a single Eagles player kneeled during the national anthem in the 2017 season, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins did protest, by raising a fist during the national anthem, in what has become one of the most enduring images of the protests. During a recent news conference, Jenkins silently held up a series of signs to reporters in a team locker room in response to their questions about the cancellation of the team’s White House visit. Among the signs Jenkins displayed, “You’re not listening.” Another said, “More than 60 percent of people in prison are people of color.” Another: “Colin Kaepernick gave $1 million to charity.” And another: “In 2018, 439 people shot and killed by police (thus far).” This is Malcolm Jenkins speaking about his activism.

MALCOLM JENKINS: The biggest thing is—for me, is, you know, I’ve done a lot of work on criminal justice reform. And the protest, in itself, is not the end-all, be-all. It’s not something I’m looking at to actually make a big change. And so that’s kind of why I went back and forth if I wanted to do it this year. But the one thing I didn’t want to do is stop publicly, you know, expressing my thoughts, and then suddenly the conversation dies out, and you lose that momentum. I think it’s important to continue to do the work behind the scenes, but also continue to use the platform that I have to speak up and open eyes of others.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Malcolm Jenkins, your new teammate.

MICHAEL BENNETT: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And I’m wondering your thoughts: Would you go to the White House, if you were—well, if you take the team, with Jenkins, to another Super Bowl and win?

MICHAEL BENNETT: I think it’s all about dialogue. I think the conversation is: How do we have dialogue about things that are really happening? If Trump is really wanting to listen to find out why we’re taking a knee, that would be something that I’d be down to do, because it’s like you don’t want to be able to always, you know, make an issue and not be able to have that conversation. And I want to be able to be like, “Hey, this is what’s happening. If you’re willing to listen and help us make a change, let’s go about it. But if it’s not, just a photo, picture, then, no.” But if it’s an opportunity to change the way that America is, or change my communities, I’m always going to take those opportunities to express my needs and express the passion of other people. So, if the opportunity is a real one, I don’t mind taking the opportunity to do that. I know a lot of people would be like, “I can’t believe you said that.” But at the end of the day, it’s not so much about the perception of what people feel. It’s really about: Are we really going to make a change? Are you really willing to change the educational system? Are you willing to do more work on police reform? Are you willing to do something on bail reform? And how can you help us do that? If you can’t help us, then I guess we’ll move on.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering about your sense of the reaction of the NFL hierarchy, the—you don’t like to call them “owners,” as you say, but the bosses of the NFL, how they have responded to the players expressing—some players expressing their concern about these social issues. And also, why do you think the NBA has been so different? I mean, apparently, the athletes in the NBA get to speak out and say whatever they want, and there’s no reaction from the NBA brass. But in the NFL, there is this real rigid nature to their response.

MICHAEL BENNETT: I think the employers, I think they—you know, they have to listen. I think people at work are—whenever the workers are saying what they mean and meaning and standing on what they believe in, they have to start listening. I think a lot of the employers, they’ve never, ever been in the situations of a black male or a Hispanic male, so they don’t understand it. They don’t have the compassion. And at first they weren’t willing to listen. And then, all of a sudden, everybody started to talk about. The building started to feel about it. It became an American conversation. So they had to come in and ask questions. And I think, slowly, but surely, we started to turn and turn those wheels, and they started to want to say, “OK, what can we do?”

And I think, you know, there’s a big misconception that the NBA is more progressive than the [NFL]. I think—I feel that the NBA is less progressive, because they have more. They have more guaranteed contracts, so they could take—you know, the risks that they take aren’t going to stop their contracts. I think the NFL players take bigger risks, because they don’t have guaranteed contracts. They have more to lose when it comes to injury, when it comes to having concussions, so they take bigger risks when it comes to that. And we forced the league to listen to it. The NBA has done—they’ve talked about things, but there’s never been a national conversation. It wasn’t a national conversation until the NFL players stood up in what they believed in, whether it was police reform, immigration. We were the players who stood up for what we believed in.

And I think there was a big drought between the athletics of the past and the athletics of now. Between the 2000s—I mean, between the 1990s and the 2000s, there weren’t really many athletes who were speaking on social issues. You know, I was a generation who missed that. I was a generation who didn’t get to see Muhammad Ali, who didn’t get to see John Carlos. I didn’t get to see those magnificent things that—when people stood up for what they believe in. And then you look at the athletes that were in my generation, none of them stand up for what they believed in. It was either doing the Nike shoe deals, or it was like money became the most important things, and we forgot about our moral compass. And I think my generation of athletes, we’ve come back onto that moral compass stage, and now we have young kids being aware of the situation. And it really started from the empathy and compassion of the players in the NFL, whether it was Colin Kaepernick, Malcolm Jenkins—the list can go on of a lot of guys who stood up for what they believed in.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and come back to our conversation with NFL star Michael Bennett. He has just left the Seahawks, the kneelingest team in the league, and gone to the Philadelphia Eagles. Not one took a knee, but protest in all different ways. Yes, he becomes a Philadelphia Eagle and, at the same time, is out with his book, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “World Revolution” by Ziggy Marley, featuring Samuill Kalonji. We went a little long with that, because Michael Bennett, our guest, well, he’s very into that song. That was his choice.

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