David Cox had spent part of the day hooping with some friends, and now they were all just hanging in the parking lot the way young people sometimes do. They weren’t breaking any laws. They weren’t causing any trouble. But that didn’t prevent some cops from approaching them.
“They didn’t like what they saw,” Cox said.
This was roughly 30 years ago.
George Floyd protests
Cox, now the men’s basketball coach at Rhode Island, was maybe 15 or 16 years old, a black teenager hanging with other black teenagers. And that’s precisely what Cox said the police officers saw that they didn’t like — just young black people grouped together. So things took a bad turn quickly.
“They immediately started harassing us,” Cox said. “They immediately threw us on the hood of the car. They started frisking us. They started cussing us. And that was my first real interaction with police.”
It’s been one week since George Floyd, a 46 year-old black man, died in Minneapolis after a white police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been fired, arrested and charged with murder. Video of the incident, recorded by concerned onlookers, has widely circulated and sparked outrage and protests in most major American cities.
There have also been riots.
This, of course, is not the first time we’ve seen video of a black man, woman or child being killed by a law enforcement official. There’s also video of Eric Garner. And Alton Sterling. And Philando Castile. And Tamir Rice. Sadly, the list is too long. And yet, undeniably, the killing of George Floyd has registered differently.
Why that is can be debated.
Perhaps it’s because there was nothing spur of the moment about what Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd. This wasn’t a scared cop pulling a trigger. This was a bad cop unnecessarily restraining a man and ignoring his pleas for help until he literally took his final breath. It was a slow death over nothing. So maybe that’s the explanation. Or it could just be that we’re in the middle of a pandemic free of distractions that often help most Americans move on quickly. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve really decided enough is enough.
I’m not sure.
“”What goes through your mind is, ‘Man, that could’ve been me.'”Rhode Island coach David Cox
But what I am sure of is that something is different this time. More companies and prominent figures than ever are taking very public stands against racial inequality. People of all races are acknowledging, in some cases for the first time, that black people in the United States are disproportionally targeted and harassed by law enforcement officials. And though not all black Americans end up dead like George Floyd, obviously, nearly all of them have a story where they thought they might. And that includes nearly all black basketball coaches.
North Carolina Central coach LeVelle Moton told one of his stories last week on Twitter. I reached out to Tulsa coach Frank Haith this weekend. He then sent me a link to a short film about Sean Bell, an unarmed back man who was killed in New York after officers fired 50 rounds at him and his friends in November 2006.
“Sean was my nephew,” Haith said.
Incredibly, nearly all black men have a story. So, with this in mind, I asked David Cox what went through his mind when he watched video of George Floyd dying. Here’s what he said: “What goes through your mind is, ‘Man, that could’ve been me.’ And that’s not an over-exaggeration. That’s not a woe-is-me response from a black man. Unfortunately, it’s a very typical, but also a very true, response. That could’ve been me.”
“I’ve probably been pulled over without being given a ticket a dozen times,” Cox added. “Out of those dozen times, I’ve probably been searched a half-dozen times. And out of those half-dozen searches, I can remember, shit man, I can remember three incidents that really scared me.”
Rhode Island coach David Cox has had his own negative experiences with police.
One incident came at night.
Cox said he was driving when, for one reason or another, he made a u-turn. While doing so, he dropped his phone. When he reached down to grab it, blue lights. Cox said he was immediately asked to get out of his car for no reason. Next thing you know, his hands are on the hood. His car is being searched by a white officer. There’s nothing illegal in the vehicle “but you don’t know if he’s going to plant something,” Cox said.
After about 15 minutes, Cox was freed.
He had done nothing wrong. He’d simply dropped his phone.
But, still, he was scared.
“The black cop actually apologized to me,” Cox said. “And how about this? If you were to grade that experience on a scale of 1 to 10, that’s on the 2 or 3 side. Those experiences aren’t me getting beat or slammed or anything. But I’ve witnessed those too.”
Cox and I talked for nearly 30 minutes this weekend.
We discussed how his mother started speaking to him about how to interact with police officers when he was about 6 years old and has never stopped because, Cox said, that’s a conversation “all black mothers have with their black boys.” We discussed the frustration that comes with watching nobody being held responsible for the killing of black Americans time and time again. And, yes, we discussed the many prominent white basketball coaches — John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Bob Huggins, Mark Few, etc., — who are now speaking out on the issue of racial inequality in numbers never before seen. Cox expressed gratitude for them and called it a “great step.” But he emphasized it cannot be where the conversation stops.
“[Their statements] show a degree of empathy and it is duly noted by black people like myself,” Cox said. “It’s a powerful gesture. However, this thing will continue. Today, there will be a black man who is probably hurt, maimed or killed by a police officer. And there will be another one tomorrow. So what do we do then? What’s the next step? Because it has to be more than a tweet.”