by Marcus Harrison Green
Hundreds stood because one man sat.
Supporters of Seahawks Defensive End Michael Bennett rallied in front of Union Station before Sunday’s game against the 49ers, expressing solidarity with the athlete as he continues protesting against systemic racism and police brutality by sitting out the national anthem.
“He’s standing up for us by sitting down. So I don’t want another person to ask why he’s sitting. He had a gun pointed at his head,” educator and activist Jesse Hagopian told the gathered, as Seahawks fans in blue and neon jerseys curiously passed by on their way to the game.
Hagopian referenced Bennett’s recent encounter with Las Vegas Metropolitan Police (LVMPD) last month after the Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor boxing match.
Earlier this month, Bennett publicized the altercation in an open letter, describing being singled out by police because of his skin color, ordered to lie face-down on the ground while a gun was pointed at his head, and an officer warned him not to move or else he would “blow his f—cking head off.”
Hagopian organized a solidarity letter condemning the actions signed by athletes including Colin Kaepernick, Sue Bird, and Megan Rapinoe after LVMPD sent its own letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
LVMPD’s letter demanded the league investigate Bennett’s account and took a personal swipe at the athlete and philanthropist for his “disrespect” of the American flag by declining to stand for the anthem.
The NFL declined the request, with Bennett supporters saying the letter was an act of intimidation stemming from the athlete publicizing the altercation. He is currently pursuing legal action against the department.
The star defensive player’s protest began in earnest prior to the Las Vegas episode, as Bennett refused to stand for the national anthem at the beginning of the pre-season, telling CNN,”I can’t stand for the national anthem. I can’t stand right now. I’m not going to be standing until I see the equality and freedom.”
Bennett’s actions followed not only those of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who’s yearlong kneel down protest during the national anthem is credited with his inability to land on an NFL roster, but his general activism around police shootings in communities of color.
Katrina Johnson, cousin of Charleena Lyles who was killed by Seattle police in June, spoke about Bennett’s sincerity in that arena at Sunday’s rally.
“Charleena was taken from us June 18th […] Bennett reached out to our family and stood by our side. He’s not sitting because he’s un-American. He’s sitting because he knows he can be treated like any of us,” she told the crowd, rattling off the names of other victims of police violence including Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner.
Bennett’s protest has shed a light not only on one of the most pertinent issues of our time but also the wanton hypocrisy of the NFL, according to sportswriter Dave Zirin.
“I’m seeing the league for the first time,” Zirin told fellow supporters. “The league is more comfortable with concussions than Colin Kaepernick. More okay with women being beaten than people kneeling for the national anthem.”
Zirin, who is currently writing a book with Bennett called “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable”, has been an outspoken critic of the NFL’s perceived blackballing of Colin Kaepernick as well as their general treatment of black players.
“I’ve spoken to players who have taken great offense at the idea that somehow their silence would be bought with intimidation because of Colin Kaepernick not getting a job. That really upset players because it makes them feel less than human,” he said speaking as the rally was wrapping up.
In a country of splintered ideologues and media consumption, sports is the last communal sphere for people to engage in a collective experience according to Zirin, which makes protests such as Bennett’s all the more essential in drawing critical attention to ongoing racial injustice.
Others have continued to join Bennett in protesting before the anthem, including Eric Reid of the 49ers who played against Bennett on Sunday. ESPN now even tracks player protests.
Bennett, and protesting players in general, continue to face as much backlash as they do support. A recent poll conducted by the Washington Post revealed that more professional football fans attributed their waning interest in the game to anthem protests rather than severe brain injuries suffered due to the sport’s violent nature – a sad commentary on American society for many in attendance on Sunday.
A Tacoma News Tribune columnist recently criticized Bennett sitting for the national anthem saying that the defensive end belongs to the team, “From the moment he takes the field before kickoff, and the moment he returns to locker room after the final gun.”
It’s such criticism, with its inference that Bennett is property of white billionaire Seahawks owner Paul Allen, that lead former Seattle mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver to compare the NFL to neo-slavery, calling it “the same fields but different cotton,” on Sunday.
Oliver, who is not a football fan, made it clear to the those gathered that the event, organized by the King County NAACP, was much more than about one person or the league.
“I don’t care if Kaepernick gets a job in the NFL again. I care that we rally around people like Kaepernick who say I will not sacrifice my values, nor my integrity,” she said.
Directly addressing the significant number of white people in the audience prior to supporters taking to the streets to march, Oliver told them that it was, “a good thing to stand for Michael Bennett. It’s a better thing to stand for everyday black people. Will you stand up for the trans-woman who is brutalized? Will you stand for the black child trapped in the cycle of a bankrupt school system?”
One thing’s for sure, until there’s an affirmative answer, Bennett will continue to sit.
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald. He writes a regular column on South Seattle personalities, social movements, juvenile justice and American society’s marginalized. He is a former scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a past Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be followed on Twitter @mhgreen3000
Featured photo by Susan Fried