Holley: Our national uprising has me stunned, inspired and motivated


People attend a protest against police brutality, Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Boston, triggered by the death of George Floyd, an African American man who died on May 25 as a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck, ignoring his cries and bystander shouts until he eventually stopped moving. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Honestly, the last couple of weeks in sports and society have blown me away.

I’ve never seen anything like them. And when I dig and search for words to capture how I feel, I can’t tiptoe around the truth: I didn’t believe I’d ever see weeks like these.

My mood is neither celebratory nor cynical. It’s in progress.

I haven’t felt like myself in these two weeks, and that’s a good thing. We’re in the early stages of an historic movement, and there’s no cheat code that tells us what the next steps are. What I do know is that I’ve been humbled by the passion and spirit that’s been sparked by grassroots America, and it’s forced me to consider just how much of the country’s racism I’ve learned to accept.

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For most of my adult life, I’ve instinctively put on daily armor before walking out the door and into a world of racial injustice. I haven’t dwelled on that; it’s been as natural as slipping into pants and shoes. It’s what Maya Angelou once referred to as the “survival apparatus.” She said that before reading Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear The Mask’’ and then she added her own update to it.

I got it. Always. Without a mask and armor, how else do you stay sane in a country — your own country — where so many black lives end brutally and dismissively by those who swear to protect them?

Killed in the passenger seat like Malice Green. Killed in the driver’s seat like Philando Castile. Killed at the front door like Amadou Diallo. Killed at the park like Tamir Rice…

I spent so much time raging and debating and writing about all of those deaths, only to see a pattern of protests and then acquittals. I began to lose trust in decency and democracy, convinced that America would choose to excuse the behavior rather than extract it.

Doesn’t everybody see what black people see? Are we crazy?

The hardest part was — and is — the fight with myself as a father, grappling with how to frame this breach to three children. They deserve innocence now, and their own path to freedom later.

I often teeter between wanting to protect them while not burdening them with my baggage. My oldest is 11, obsessed with Marvel movies and Beyblades. He’s very much a boy, but he’s sprouting so much that he’ll be taller than me soon. I flinch when I think that he, due to his height, skin color, and the country’s brokenness, could be viewed as anything other than a child. 

That’s where I was, somewhere in those spaces, when I saw the video of George Floyd’s murder. It was as evil and heartbreaking as the others before it, and I steeled myself for the familiar response.

But it didn’t happen, and it’s not happening.

Thank God.

It turns out all those years in armor protected me well. Too well. I’d developed bruises to my soul, but was too numb to realize it. I paid too much attention to partisan differences, and not enough to irrepressible men and women who fought with fewer resources against greater odds.

I wasn’t thinking big enough.

I never thought I’d see worldwide protests. People in Paris, London, Stockholm, Nairobi, and Tel Aviv going to the streets and saying George Floyd’s name.

I never thought I’d see such diverse marches, with people from various age groups, races, and political positions, uniting and saying — through “I Can’t Breathe” masks — that they’ve had enough.

I never thought I’d see Roger Goodell deliver a statement so powerful that it required several replays. The first couple were to grasp the breadth of all that he said; it took two more for it to sink in that the speaker was the NFL commissioner. He said that black lives matter. He said that he is personally protesting with players. He said the country’s protests “are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality, and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff.”

I never thought I’d see NASCAR ban the Confederate flag. I lost all hope of that happening in 2015. That was the year a white supremacist went into a South Carolina church, sat through bible study, and then killed nine black people. There was no way I thought anyone with an ounce of sensitivity would allow that flag, one of our country’s symbols of terror and hate, to fly at a track after that. Especially when Dale Earnhardt Jr. pleaded with fans to put it away. They didn’t listen, and the flag remained. Until now.

I never thought I’d see a team executive thoughtfully and publicly question himself over his own hiring practices. Theo Epstein did that, asking aloud why the majority of people he’s hired with the Red Sox and Cubs look like him and have similar backgrounds. “I need to question my own assumptions, my own attitudes. I need to find a way to be better.”

Maybe, like me, you find yourself with that outlook now. Questioning assumptions and attitudes — and calling them out if the answers aren’t satisfactory.

I know that I can speak louder. Listen better. Work more aggressively and collaboratively across racial and political lines. Fight harder and longer against injustices that we talk about as well as those that we don’t.

Long after I’m gone, I want kids — yours and mine — to be able to see the totality of this moment in history and know, with certainty, that we were on the right side of it.

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