Voting and protest: LeBron James’ social justice train

LeBron James said what a lot of people have been thinking or saying about all of the tumult happening in 2020. There is a pandemic to contend with. The recurring deadly violence by police against Black people has led to raucous protests. An impeached president declaring his verbal wrath towards athletes who have preached messages of social justice. Activism has raided college campuses.

The possible suppression of votes has been a calling card for this November’s presidential general election. The tragic passing of a beloved hoops icon and the recent unexpected announcement death of a cinema legend have made for an unforgiving year in the Black community, which has lost icon after another. The gutwrenching passings of the late great Kobe Bryant and Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman echo the heartbreak of those losses.

To lose the Black Panther and the Black Mamba in the same year…we all agree that 2020 is the sh****tiest year,” James said after posting a triple-double in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 131-122 Game 5 first-round playoff series win against the Portland Trail Blazers to advance to the Western Conference semifinals for the first time since 2012. 

The magnitude of Black icons and losing the likes of Bryant and Boseman is not lost on James, who recorded 36 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists to help the Lakers finish off the Trail Blazers with a 4-1 series advantage.

LeBron James
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James is keeping the heat up on the social justice campaign as the team chases an NBA title this season. Photo by Mark Hammond for News4usonline

“We’re already limited in sense given that type of power, that type of stage that he had, and especially in that industry,” said James. “You don’t see many Black male, female actors being put on that stage. For him to be as transcendent as he was…I had an opportunity to spend a couple of evenings with him, a couple of days with him, meet him and talk to him, you could tell that he was something that was just more than what we saw on the screen.”  

Spending nearly 20 minutes speaking to the media after his team’s series wrap up victory, James was effusive in his praise of Boseman, who gained notoriety for his portrayal of Black figures such as James Brown (Get On Up), U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Marshall), Jackie Robinson (42), and then starring as King T’Challa in Black Panther.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER..L to R: Okoye (Danai Gurira), T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba). Photo: Matt Kennedy.©Marvel Studios 2018

“For Ryan Coogler and for that cast and for himself to be able to make Black Panther, even though we knew it was a fictional story, it actually felt real.  It actually felt like we finally have our Black superhero and nobody could touch us, and so to lose that it’s sad in our community,” James said. 

Even with a heavy heart, James and the Lakers still have to play basketball. But that privilege almost became undone remarkably when members of the Milwaukee Bucks almost turned the gameday experience into a full-blown mutiny inside of the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida.

The Bucks’ decision to sit out their Game 5 matchup against the Orlando Magic in a solidarity protest of the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin in which the 29-year-old Black man was shot seven times in close proximity in the back by a white police officer, produced some drama. The shooting of Blake has left him paralyzed from the waist down and instantly jumpstarted protest and unrest.

Milwaukee players made their voices heard about the matter, issuing a statement by the team.

“When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement,” the team statement read. 

“We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable. For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform. We encourage all citizens to educate themselves, take peaceful and responsible action, and remember to vote on Nov. 3.”

The Bucks’ action reportedly drew consternation from some people around the league. James wasn’t one of those people who took exception to what the Bucks did.

“I wasn’t upset at all,” James said. “Obviously, Milwaukee did what they did and as a brotherhood…we call this a brotherhood; we stood in solidarity with them. We knew what they were doing it for with the recent events that happened in Wisconsin, which is home for them. There was knowledge of what or when they were going to do it or if they were going to do it, obviously. They didn’t know. It took them forever to kind of figure it out and say that they weren’t going to go out there. I’m not here to judge or categorize what Milwaukee did, but we all stood with them.”

© Dennis J Freeman/News4usonline -Black Lives Matter (Los Angeles) holds a march and rally in downtown Long Beach, California on Sunday, May, 31, 2020. The protest was held to bring attention to police violence in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody. Thousands of demonstrators showed up for the event.

The stance that Milwaukee took turned out to be an effective tool to turn all those social justice statements into something tangible.  The Lakers and other NBA teams had their playoff games postponed. The WNBA followed suit with game cancellations of their own.

The trickle-down effect continued with Major League Baseball (MLB) as well as Major League Soccer (MSL) walking away from their individual protests to the ongoing violence by law enforcement against Black Americans and people of color. The NFL saw teams like the Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Chargers, and others cancel practices in a perceived view of lack of justice. Tennis star Naomi Osaka forced the Western & Southern Open to pause play when she initially said she would not play in her semifinal match.

“Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman. And as a black woman, I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis. I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction. Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach. I’m exhausted of having a new hashtag pop up every few days and I’m extremely tired of having this same conversation over and over again,” Osaka wrote on a Twitter posting.  

Demonstrators take to the streets in downtown Los Angeles to protest the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on June 3, 2020. Both Floyd and Taylor died at the hands of the police. Taylor was killed on March 13. Floyd lost his life on May 25. Four police officers have been charged in Floyd’s death which was caught on video. As of July 31, 2020, there have been no charges brought against the police officers involved in the shooting death of Taylor. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

Impact felt. Now with all of this going on, James and the Lakers, as well as other NBA players, were forced to decide what plan of action they were going to take as far as deciding if they wanted to halt the season or to make better use of the platform they have. The players opted to meet with the respective team owners to air out their concerns, even though the Lakers, as well as the Los Angeles Clippers, reportedly voted to end the season altogether.

The players requested some things. The league relented to a degree. Team owners agreed with their players to help form a social justice coalition and to convert arenas in cities where NBA teams play into a vote center. The league will also allow advertising spots for civic engagement.

“These commitments follow months of close collaboration around designing a safe and healthy environment to restart the NBA season, providing a platform to promote social justice, as well as creating an NBA Foundation focused on economic empowerment in the Black community,” the league statement read. “We look forward to the resumption of the playoffs and continuing to work together – in Orlando and in all NBA team markets – to push for meaningful and sustainable change.”

With all of that thrown out on the table, the Lakers organization didn’t waste time in getting those arrangements hammered out with local officials. The Lakers announced that the franchise has partnered with the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, AEG and STAPLES Center to turn the entertainment arena into a giant vote center for the upcoming November Presidential General Election.

“The Lakers organization is extremely pleased to be able to partner with AEG and the County of Los Angeles to open up STAPLES Center to provide a safe and easily accessible location for people to vote,” said Jeanie Buss, Lakers Governor. “For our democracy to function, all citizens need to be able to vote in a secure and safe way – and we’re very happy to be able to play our part in ensuring that they can.”

James, who has hand in getting people more involved in their civic participation through More Than a Vote, applauds the collective joining of the Lakers, AEG, Los Angeles County, and STAPLES Center as one entity that will allow for more people to have access to the voting process.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James getting prepped for the NBA restart at the team’s practice facility. Photo credit:

“It means everything to know that STAPLES Center is going to be a polling site for voting is unbelievable and it’s something that we need,” James said. “It’s something that we not only need in Los Angeles but in a lof of our NBA cities…trying to get all 30 franchises in all 30 NBA cities to open up. But at the same time, even with the Lakers’ relationship with the [LA] Dodgers, Dodger Stadium as well, and we’re going to have some other stadiums and arenas as well, hopefully before November. So, kudos to STAPLES Center. Kudos to the Lakers organization. I’m just proud to be a part of it.”

In between trying to lead the Lakers to an NBA title and advocating social justice messaging on the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others at hands of police and bringing awareness to the voting process, you’ll have to excuse James as he seeks to get some good old R and R before he puts on his postseason hard hat again.

“Tonight, I’ll decompress, I’ll get away from the game. Tomorrow as well,” said James. “But I’ll watch the games, and then on Monday, you’ll watch the games and see what happens. If Houston goes on to win then I’ll begin to lock in on my next opponent. If OKC goes [on] to win it gives me a few more hours to stay away from it as well…just kind of waiting to see what happens with the series but at the same time, I’m going to watch the rest of the games. The rest of the playoffs have been very good. For me, personally, I won’t lock back in until I know exactly who we’re going to play.”

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