WNBA Players Protested Police Brutality Even Before Colin Kaepernick. Remember That?

This week's protests are nothing new for the WNBA.

There were supposed to be basketball games on Wednesday. The WNBA was supposed to have three of them. Washington was set to play Atlanta. Minnesota was supposed to face Los Angeles. Ditto for Connecticut and Phoenix. None of those games happened.

Instead, players chose to link arms and kneel on the court to show solidarity with Jacob Blake, the 29-year-old Black man who was shot seven times in his back in front of his three young sons by Minnesota police. Blake is now paralyzed.

“The consensus is to not play in tonight’s slate of games and to kneel, lock arms, and raise fists during the national anthem,” said Atlanta Dream player Elizabeth Williams, reading a statement on behalf of her teammates.

“We stand in solidarity with our brothers in the NBA and will continue this conversation with our brothers and sisters across all leagues and look to take collective action.”

The coordinated action came shortly after a similar one in the NBA, when the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and several other teams chose to postpone their games. “I don’t think we should be talking about basketball today,” Bucks player George Hill said at a press conference. “There are things way bigger than basketball,” Raptors player Pascal Siakam said.

The cancellations across these leagues further illuminated not only the obvious impossibility of using sport to escape from the haunting realities of life — any efforts at escapism right now seem absurd, if a bit morally shaky — but also a historical amnesia. Much of the attention around these actions has settled itself on what the NBA players are doing. But the organizing efforts of WNBA players has often been positioned as a kind of afterthought, repeating the pattern of how the social justice work of Black women leaders is perpetually devalued and overlooked. (Black women make up 67 per cent of the league.)

“As we’ve been saying, please do not erase the WNBA’s leadership in this,” @ItsDrLittle wrote in a tweet. “Media may not spotlight them like they should be [but] folks need to know and recognize their voices in this moment and throughout the last several years.”

The last several years

In the summer of 2016, on the Friday night of a preseason game, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” he told NFL media after the game. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Inevitably, conflict ensued, and Kaepernick’s efforts to draw attention to the stakes of police brutality and anti-Black violence instantly transformed him both into a kind of martyr — he became a free agent after that season and remained unsigned — and a beacon in the sports world.

But Kaepernick’s action eclipsed another that came before his. The month before he kneeled as the national anthem played, there were protests in the WNBA. That same summer, in July, four members of the Minnesota Lynx held a press conference to discuss police brutality and the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. The players who held that conference each wore black t-shirts printed with a simple phrase: “Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accountability.

Those protests continued on as the days went on. They violated WNBA uniform rules, and the league fined them for the action. Accepting a Player of the Month trophy, Tina Charles protested the fine by violating the uniform rules again, choosing to wear her league-approved warm-up shirt inside-out. Days later, after the players refused to back down, the WNBA rescinded its fines, and teams continued to protest. That September, the Indiana Fever team linked arms and knelt during the national anthem. Two members of the opposing team, the Phoenix Mercury, did the same. And in the following months, the protests steadily continued.

Most recently, WNBA players wore t-shirts endorsing the political rival of US senator Kelly Loeffler, who has previously opposed the work of the Black Lives Matter movement.

For the record, WNBA players still haven’t reached parity when it comes to their wages. WNBA players, according to CNBC, earn just 20 per cent of an NBA player’s minimum salary. They don’t have the same financial power as their male counterparts do, and yet they still consistently protest in pursuit of change.

What this means

All of this is to say that the WNBA has long been a beacon of leadership when it comes to calling out injustice and insisting that human lives are more important than sport. They have consistently and passionately reimagined the political potential of the athlete, but their legacy has often been diminished and forgotten as professional men have secured the world’s attention.

It’s difficult to see this as a coincidence rather than a microcosm: a symbol of how Black women are so frequently overlooked in the conversations around social justice movements, even when they’re the ones on the front lines.

Black women have often held vital and central roles in social movements, and have often seen their work go unnoticed by the wider public.

Though often attributed to white feminist activists in the 1970s, the beginnings of anti-rape activism in the US, for example, actually finds its origins in Black women like Ida B. Wells and Fannie Barrier Williams, two unsung heroes of the civil rights movement who fervently investigated and reported lynchings and participated in campaigns to halt sexual violence against Black women.

The founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, is a Black woman, yet the movement didn’t gain traction until the American actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase — a decade after Burke first used it.

The present movement to defund the police would not be at all possible if it weren’t for the efforts of women like Marsha P. Johnson, a trans activist and pivotal figure in the Stonewall uprisings of 1969; Ruth Wilson Gilmore, an American geography scholar who has been adovating for prison abolition for three decades; Angela Davis, who is literally Angela Davis and who has written multiple seminal texts on abolition, feminism and class; and, more recently, Patrisse Cullors, a cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In Toronto, it was Black women like Alexandra Williams who were at the forefront of the 2016 Black Lives Matter action at Toronto Pride, where they demanded the removal of uniformed police officers from the parade four years before the current global protests. Those women were subjected to countless racist attacks after the protest.

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And it goes deeper than that. Often times, even when Black women are at the forefront of these movements, once those movements take off, they find themselves left behind. George Floyd’s name, for example, was chanted far more than Breonna Taylor’s, though they met the same fate. It’s a circumstance that Stewart Coles, lead researcher of an American Psychological Association study of this phenomenon, calls “intersectional invisibility.” Black women have been historically disregarded by social movements.

“Injustice against Black women affects the entire community, but sometimes we’re at the bottom of the totem pole,” Alexis Bass, a 22-year-old Black activist, told CNN.

So as we continue to talk about the protests in sports leagues and the players courageous enough to lead the charge, it’s critical that we don’t ignore the efforts of these women, whose concerns are often rendered invisible. And, regarding the sports world protests, as Gabrielle Nutter tweeted: “Shoutout to the WNBA for paving the way for this moment in sports. That can’t be mentioned enough.”