A roundtable centering on social justice inequalities in America took place Dec. 12 between two unlikely groups at the most unlikely place.
Earl Smith, San Francisco 49ers pastor, led a team of Bay Area sports personalities into San Quentin State Prison for a discussion with an audience of about 100 people, including inmates, community volunteers and prison staffers.
A major topic — the challenges athletes face when speaking publicly about mass incarceration and racism.
To protest the treatment of Blacks in America, 49er safety Eric Reid took a knee during the national anthem, along with ex-49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He didn’t want Kaepernick’s message to be misunderstood.
“Pastor Earl said kneeling is OK,” Reid noted.
Reid continued that his mother and cousins, who served in the U.S. military, do not feel disrespected by his peaceful protest.
Van Jones listening to Branden Terrell ask a question of the panel
The Arnulfo T. Garcia Sports and Social Justice Roundtable was moderated by Van Jones, a CNN political commentator and author of Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together, (2017).
Jones founded #Cut50 in 2015, an organization aimed at reducing the U.S. prison population in half by 2050.
The event featured members of the Golden State Warriors (GSW) and 49ers organizations. Both 49er players and president and owner Tony York came along with sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards. Football Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott and Charles Hailey also attended.
The panel consisted of GSW GM Bob Myers; 49ers Reid, Robbie Gould and Louis Murphy; activist Pamela Black; and incarcerated men Aaron “Showtime” Taylor, Gus “Lumumba” Edwards and San Quentin News staffer Rahsaan Thomas.
Edwards founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which led to the Black Power Salute protest by two African American athletes during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics’ award ceremony.
He opened the roundtable, talking about the huge platform today’s athletes have, and said the “urgency of now” calls for addressing current social injustices, similar to the Civil War, women’s suffrage, anti-war movements and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
“We came out of each of these better people,” Edwards said.
Edwards called for free people to go inside prisons and talk to incarcerated people about the impact of mass incarceration.
“There is a need to constantly keep in touch with the community,” Edwards said. “There need to be clinics to talk to the young people. We must maintain contact with the community.”
Since 2012, Myers has been bringing members of his staff into San Quentin to play basketball.
People don’t understand why he comes inside a prison.
“I tell them that the people I interact with are all good people,” Myers said about the inmates he plays ball with, adding it has been a chance for him to open his eyes. “Each time I come here, I leave more educated.”
Thomas told the athletes, “Coming in here shows that somebody cares — somebody’s shaking it up. We have a little of that kind of power at San Quentin News, but you guys have a mega-horn.”
The Challenges of Race Relations
“I didn’t have to deal with a community where somebody got shot,” said Myers. “Nobody in my community went to prison. I always ask myself, ‘If one of these guys grew up where I did, would they be running the Warriors?’”
Myers spoke candidly: “I have no idea what it’s like to be a Black man,” or how it felt being Black, taking an elevator with White people and then getting strange looks or what it’s like to be stopped by the police, based on skin color.
“If that happened to me 10 years ago, I’d still be pissed off,” Myers said.
Myers talked about race relations at San Quentin:
“The White guys are still sitting with the White guys, and the Black guys are sitting with the Black guys. Why is that?”
Myers told a story about being 18 years old and in a college locker room:
“I saw Black guys putting lotion on their legs. I’d never seen that, so I asked them what they were doing. They told me they didn’t want to be ashy. I didn’t know what being ashy was. Then I asked one of my Black friends if he wants to use my razor. He told me that he couldn’t use a razor because it would give him bumps. I don’t have a clue about being Black.”
He challenged Blacks and Whites to interact better and closer:
“It’s about unity. We have to walk past each other on the streets and see each other like seeing a friend.”
Murphy said he respects White players who support social issues particular to Black people.
“We need to continue to meet people like Bob Myers, who walk across the bridge. If the roles were reversed, I question myself, ‘Would I do the same thing as Bob Myers?’”
Murphy said although there’s more work to do to end racism and stereotypes, “We’re headed in the right direction.”
Taylor challenged the audience to rely upon themselves and not on the government to bring unity.
“When we have this conversation, we need to be honest,” Taylor said, emphasizing that Black people cannot have a conversation about race while pointing an accusatory finger at the other person.
“We need to look at each other without judgment,” Taylor said. “We need to look at people without assuming things about each other,” adding, “Either we going to be Americans, or we can keep up the tribalism.”
—Rahsaan Thomas contributed to this story