Michael Bennett’s NFL black power salute could change sports protest

Latria Graham | The Guardian

Michael BennettIf you blinked you might have missed it, because it only lasted 10 seconds – but it changed social justice demonstrations in the NFL. Now fans cannot tune out any longer.

On Sunday night, NFL player Michael Bennett celebrated a successful tackle by raising his right fist high into the sky. It was a silent gesture that echoed the civil rights-era Black Power salute used famously by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

For those that might have missed its significance, Bennett explained his move in atweet later that night: “The raised fist represent unity or solidarity with oppressed peoples.”

Bennett has long been on the forefront of social justice. But things changed after his experience of racial profiling and a subsequent altercation with Las Vegas police this month. Bennett claims police “threatened to ‘blow my fucking head off.’” With the resulting smear campaign by the same police department, his demonstrations have taken on a new vitality.

Bennett’s gesture signals that social justice protest at the NFL is no longer relegated to the sidelines. While Colin Kaepernick – who gained fame for kneeling during the national anthem (which many fans don’t watch) in protest of systemic racism – Bennett has brought protest into the game itself. This means that fans, many of whom are divided over these protests, won’t be able to turn away from them. If they do, they’ll miss pivotal parts of the game.

Fans may be uncomfortable with his refusal to stand. For Bennett, though, being uncomfortable is a chronic issue, because he is a black man living in the United States during a time of civil unrest, when black bodies are policed within an inch of their lives.

Bennett, an outspoken philanthropist and activist, uses his body as his medium for protest. That’s because the black male body in this arena is the thing that everyone – fans, management and even police are trying to regulate.

Kaepernick and his team, the San Francisco 49ers, have parted ways in a move that many believe to be a “punishment” for his protest. He currently is unsigned by any team, despite the fact that many other NFL players, like Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, say he deserves the opportunity to play again.

Every move of defiance Bennett makes is deeply personal in a way it wasn’t before. Since he is signed up with an NFL team, Bennett is doing what Kaepernick cannot do any more. He is using his high-profile position to push the conversation forward – and, to those are dismayed that Kaepernick is gone, that is just what’s needed.

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