[Collective 20 is a group of writers located in different places throughout the globe. Some young, some older; some long-time organizers and writers, others just getting started, but all equally dedicated to offering analysis, vision, and strategy useful for winning a vastly better society than we currently endure. The members of Collective 20 hope their contributions concerning social, political, economic, and environmental issues will generate more useful content and better outreach through a collective publication effort as opposed to individuals doing so on their own. Collective 20’s cumulative work can be found at collective20.org, where you can learn more about the group, see an archive of its publications, and comment on its work.]
Back in the time before the time before the time before now, we used to have a chant. It would name some courageous, creative, fighter for justice and then urge that we Live Like Her, Live Like Him.
In that time, in the next time, in the next time, up until now, would any serious committed activist for racial, gender, economic, international, or ecological change have thought it remotely possible that Live Like Them would ever refer to professional athletes? Not a chance. And yet…
The response of athletes as teams and as individuals, striking, dropping out of tournaments, speaking out, soberly and carefully searching for worthy and viable demands to pursue, even voting to forego the rest of a season – not for themselves per se, but for black men and women writ large, and even for all of society, is in fact remarkable. They are building on the legacies of athletes who previously spoke up and took courageous actions for racial justice—Wilma Rudolph, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick and others.
Okay, we admit, there is a problem in trying to live like them. They are, by and large, rich. In the long run we can try to alter society so that all are well off, and none are rich, or even so incomes for all are equitable, but we aren’t there yet. But rich or not, in their worlds, in their minds, they are risking a lot, trying to have impact not only for themselves, but for those in greater need, and for society as a whole. None of them and no one like them has done it before at anything like the present scale. That is the thing to emulate.
So what does emulating them mean? How would teachers emulate the Lakers? How would nurses emulate the Clippers? How would Amazon workers emulate the Bucks or the whole WNBA? How would anyone emulate Naomi Osaka, number one tennis pro?
Teachers would strike again. Nurses would strike again. Amazon workers would strike again. And all would sign on to demands that arise from the broad Black Lives Matter movement.
But let’s get back to the athletes. The NBA players have been percolating into activism for some time. Not all teachers, nurses, and Amazon workers have been on that trajectory as long. Like all of us, they have a ways to go. Maybe they will get there. But what more might the athletes do?
Well, they can return to their on-going playoffs, to the rest of their season, after boycotting for two or a few days. They have been speaking out, they have been wearing signs, they have been trying to address racism, but they all talk about it not having been enough. On day one it is special, but on day two, and then on day thirty and day fifty – with no growth and no new features, it becomes routine. It doesn’t grow in reach, strength, or impact. That’s the thing about protest, to really matter, it has to keep morphing and growing. It has to carry a threat.
Okay so they could cancel the rest of the NBA season, just say no, just strike. But then what? If they go home, after the shock of their doing so and after the seriously meaningful legitimacy that their act would give to strikes and to protest more broadly, especially Black Lives Matter, they would be home, separately, not doing much to help. It was that observation that caused the players to vote to begin play anew. But what happens in a week, or two, or three?
Next time, what if they consider something really different? What if they strike? No more season, but then they don’t go home. Maybe they march to Washington – literally, from Orlando to Washington. There are 450 active players in the NBA. So maybe 400 – 450 march. Let’s say 20 miles a day counting stop overs, visiting community centers and whatever makes sense. It would be 850 miles so just over 40 days marching. How many would join in the march, some just for the path through their town. Others from town to town. Others from their town all the way to Washington. 10,000, 100,000, 500,000 by the time they get to the White House? How many would assemble at the White House. 1,000,000, or more? Maybe it won’t be the NBA who gets it started. Maybe the WNBA will, as they have all along, be even more united and militant. Or maybe a different collective, united, sustained action would make more sense.
And, if they undertake a long march, let’s say they don’t just march alone, they march with, and behind, the Black Lives Matters Movement’s leadership. And they have clear demands which they advocate at every stop along the way, and of course continually emphasize in the constant media coverage. And what if they also announce they won’t leave Washington until their demands are met. Perhaps the demands include that police must live in communities they patrol. Police must be demilitarized. Police must not be used against the homeless. Prison populations must be dramatically diminished, and policies made rehabilitative and constructive. And police must be subject to community oversight boards which have the right to fire officers who violate agreed civil norms. And suppose it doesn’t stop there, because racism and injustice don’t involve only police brutality. So, perhaps a march or other collective approach also continues to increase the athletes’ demands that the WNBA and NBA and all the team owners more actively further racial justice. Perhaps it also demands free quality daycare for all, free quality medical care for all, free quality public eduction through college for all, and major public housing commitments plus housing costing at most 25% of a tenant’s income with government subsidies when necessary – and in each case establishing minimum standards that must be met for things such as resources available per pre school child, all teacher-student ratios, educational resources allotted per student, doctor-patient ratios, medical resources per population, and room size and amenities for dwellings.
The point is, when athletes rightly realize that they have power but sensibly wonder how they can manifest it to actually impact change, maybe there are accessible answers. Yes, they can individually work incredibly admirably to foster special programs, to help finance well being, to aid local food banks, to establish voting centers, and so on. But collectively, which is their real strength, they can mobilize massively for meaningful demands and not stop until they win. And then after a time, the teachers, nurses, workers of all kinds, students, and prisoners who decide to emulate such choices – they could change our whole society.