In the fall of 1967, Norman Mailer got himself arrested. This isn’t idiom; he meant to do it. This was at the March on the Pentagon, a lefty-liberal demonstration against the war in Vietnam, where Noam Chomsky spoke, Allen Ginsberg tried to levitate the building, and Mailer walked up to a loose-knit line of military police and told them he was about to break the law. They didn’t respond, so he strode past them, walking then running, getting maybe 100 yards from the war machine’s outer wall before two MPs tackled him. They hauled him off to jail, where he was held overnight, made to sweat the prospect of a five-day sentence and a $50 fine, and released on his own recognizance.
These were the days when a handful of novelists were genuinely famous. Mailer wasn’t Muhammad Ali—who of course sacrificed three years of his boxing prime for refusing to fight in the war—but people generally knew who he was, what he looked like. Lots of them had read one or two of his books. It was newsworthy, his getting arrested alongside a few celebrities in varying degrees, strident anarchists and mushy peaceniks, professors and clergymen, a bunch of middle-class college kids. Mailer understood his task as lending a degree of legitimacy to a cause that too many in media and government dismissed as bleeding heart PhD and fringe hippie nonsense. The Domino Theory had been underscrutinized. We were in Vietnam to keep the Asian continent—the entire globe!—safe from Communism. That was a glib enough justification for mainstream America in 1967, nearly six years before the war reached a critically unpopular state and started to wind down.
Like Mailer at the Pentagon, LeBron James was merely a participant in his colleagues’ recent protest. It was the Milwaukee Bucks rank and file who said they weren’t playing last Wednesday evening, and then Giannis said okay, and then the Orlando Magic agreed to sit out too. Then the Lakers and Blazers, the Thunder and Rockets. LeBron tried to commandeer the moment retroactively, tweeting “F--- THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT,” but the walkout wasn’t his idea. It wasn’t a clear idea either, more like an expression of grief in the wake of yet another black man, Jacob Blake of Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot by police when, if he were white, he surely would have been safely taken away in cuffs. This fact was further confirmed three days later, when a white supremacist creep named Kyle Rittenhouse killed two Kenosha protesters, wounded another, and walked toward police as if in surrender. They looked right past him, had to pick him up and charge him the next day.
Forget an organized strike, any black person in America could be forgiven for simply not showing up to work after receiving that news. The Bucks did eventually arrive at a more specific point, insisting on justice for Jacob Blake and pressuring the Wisconsin legislature to reconvene to pass “meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.” That this is not intensely specific—what does meaningful mean?—is not their fault. They’re ballplayers, not experts or legislators. They made themselves as clear as they needed to.
Asked what NBA players could do following the Jacob Blake shooting, George Hill was angry and discouraged: “we can’t do anything… we shouldn’t have came to this damn place, to be honest.” In response to a followup, frustration blooming: “we’re down here playing in the bubble to do these things for social justice and all that, and to see [the police violence] all still going on and we’re just playing the games like it’s nothing, it’s just a really messed up situation right now.” Hill stewed after that press scrum and realized that he wasn’t entirely powerless. The players could indeed do something. They could make a loud noise, at least.
In theory, they could do more than this. They could shut the playoffs down. But it would cost players millions, tens of millions in some cases. They would forfeit a huge chunk of their salaries for this season and possibly void their contracts altogether. The irascible leftist would argue that nearly all of them are already more than set for life and no amount of money should persuade them to act according to anything except their own consciences, but that is not, regrettably, the shape most people’s thinking takes. A guy with $30 million in the bank will usually still allow himself to be bought by another $10 million, especially if he’s unsure what punting on that extra scratch would accomplish. The players weren’t going to truly strike, not for more than a couple days.
With that limited leverage, they extracted modest concessions from their employers. A handful of NBA owners had already committed to using their arenas as polling places for the upcoming presidential election; now all of them are going to do so. The league will cut some new ads “dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity” and establish a social justice coalition that will function as a sort of working group from which players, coaches, and owners will decide on how to use the league’s revenue and cultural cachet to affect positive change.
Tame stuff. Vague stuff. Here, LeBron reenters the picture, as he inevitably would. Having cosigned what the Bucks drafted, he and a cadre of stars called Barack Obama on Wednesday night for advice on how to handle the situation going forward. You will be shocked to hear that a man who spent the first year of his presidency watering down his healthcare bill to appease Republicans, without getting a single Republican to vote for it, told the players to give the game away. The social justice coalition, according to a story leaked primarily to remind everyone that LeBron has the former president’s number, was apparently Obama’s idea. Tame stuff. Vague stuff, huffs the irascible leftist, who of course is not the former president’s biggest fan, would not be pleased with anything short of the players quitting the season and going home to march in the streets—expecting entirely too much from rich twenty- and thirtysomethings who, in the end, really do want to play basketball. It is their love and their purpose. It’s hard to begrudge them that.
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While Mailer was in jail, he asked a radical young man who had made a more strenuous play to get into the Pentagon what he and his friends would have done if they had penetrated the building and managed to hold a corridor for a while. “Oh, I don’t know,” the revolutionary said. “We could have painted the walls, caused disruption generally.” Mailer, considering this remark in his book The Armies of the Night: “[the March] was a battle unlike any other, for in a symbolic war, victory had no tangible fruit.” It’s a touch strange that we classify public assembly as direct action, because it’s not like you can end a war or even get a pothole fixed by browbeating politicians and bureaucrats. You shame them into doing the thing that you yourself cannot actually do. So sure, you make it your goal to get into the Pentagon. And then what? You trash a hallway. Your silly duty, parallel but hopefully somewhere along the line intersecting with your moral one, is to be the most acute pain in the ass you can be. And then somebody with real power pulls the lever, to placate you. Is that how it works?
Neither Mailer nor the revolutionary knew this when they were having their discussion, but a gaggle of 25 or so protesters had gotten into the building. Troops stationed inside the Pentagon promptly clubbed and kicked and arrested them. The troops outside, facing a crowd of diehards who would not disperse, arrested approximately 1,000 more, plus fired tear gas into the crowd, doused them with hoses.
They wanted the war in Vietnam ended. Who cares how. Declare whatever highly conditional victory you need to and get out. Stop mucking around in the affairs of a sovereign nation, stop burning villages, terrorizing natives who don’t know what they’ve done wrong or why this is happening to them. Stop, while you are already behind, traumatizing an entire generation of American men. Just stop it. Stop. This is hurting people.
So they organized in New York and Berkeley and college campuses all over the map, they harassed Lyndon Johnson wherever he went, Robert McNamara too. They cross-pollinated with Women’s Libbers and Civil Rights activists. They marched on the Pentagon, about 50,000 of them, where they burned draft cards, sang songs, lectured soldiers, graffiti’d antiwar slogans, sat down impassively in the parking lot and waited to be thrown in a wagon. This accomplished nothing obvious or practical. Johnson praised the cops and military personnel, called the demonstrators irresponsible, violent, and lawless. The press was broadly unsympathetic to their cause, emphasizing their rudeness, a few smashed windows, firmly framing law enforcement as the good guys.
Civil unrest continued. The government held its position. America stayed in Vietnam. Things got really, really dark. By the time Mailer was at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August of 1968, reporting what would become the second half of Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Martin Luther King was dead, Bobby Kennedy was dead, and the youth had broken hopelessly and fitfully from the Democratic party, who were about to nominate Hubert Humphrey, a charmless moderate without the conviction to end the war, who would go on—this was clear well before the votes were cast—to get walloped by Richard Nixon in November. The kids Mailer admired and had believed set in motion some possibly restorative reckoning in The Armies of the Night were despondent, coming apart, getting their heads caved in on Michigan Avenue, cops beating them in front of every television news camera in North America.
Mailer lost some of his nerve between the events of Armies and Chicago. In the latter book, he’s feeling his middle age, concerned about the fragility of the fine life he’s built for himself, mostly standing apart from the action he describes. He’s a reporter on deadline; he can’t get locked up or concussed. This is how he justifies his cowardice, anyway. At one point a riot breaks out. Protestors are shouting at and hurling stink bombs into the air ducts of the Hilton that houses the convention delegates. Mailer’s in the hotel. Not without consternation, he elects to stay in his room. He tries to organize a march later in the weekend. It fizzles. He’s not a little disappointed in himself. Because he certainly does care. He wants the war in Vietnam ended. But how much effort, he asks himself in so many words, is he willing to put toward that conviction?
“One simply could not accept the dangerous alternative every time; he would never do any other work. And then with another fear, conservative was this fear, he looked into his reluctance to lose even the America he had had, that insane warmongering technology land with its smog, its superhighways, its experts and its profound dishonesty. Yet, it had allowed him to write—it had even not deprived him entirely of honors, certainly not of an income. He had lived well enough to have six children, a house on the water, a good apartment, good meals, good booze… a profound part of him… detested the thought of seeing his American society—evil, absurd, touching, pathetic, sickening, coming, full of novelistic marrow—disappear now in the nihilistic maw of a national disorder.”
When you are living comfortably, and you want things to change, you want them not to change too much.
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It’s difficult to say what LeBron James wants, what George Hill wants, if it’s precisely the same thing or if either of them even know what it is. Again: ballplayers, not nonprofit workers or legislators. A war is easier to oppose, in certain respects, because you can stand against it completely. What do I think of the war? I think there shouldn’t be one. Police reform is trickier, if you’re not an abolitionist, which you would guess a vast majority of NBA players are not. And it’s an issue fused to a hundred others. You can talk about it without talking about community investment, criminal justice, schooling, mental healthcare, access to jobs, access to capital, access to the vote and your vote being more than a choice between Pepsi and Coke. Do you want to defund the police? How much, and where do you reallocate those funds? Are you in favor of civilian review boards? What about ending qualified immunity? It’s a lot to take on for people whose literal job is to take it on, let alone ballplayers. Andre Iguodala, zooming out to nigh comedic effect, recently mentioned that “capitalism and racism go hand-in-hand, and you can’t have one without the other.” The irascible leftist couldn’t agree with Iguodala more strongly, but: hoo boy, buddy. Try to get the NBA to help you out with that particular problem. You’ll be lucky they don’t blackball you like Craig Hodges.
(Speaking of Hodges, here are his blunt thoughts on the players returning to work: “we had a choice not to go to the bubble. Now when we go to the bubble, it continues. Now we're going to go back and play and [the cops are] going to kill more black people.” Craig Hodges is a reliably straight shooter, in all facets.)
Protest, which every player and coach on every team in Orlando has now participated in, for the first time or the 50th, is a cumulative act. It’s rarely rewarding. You can’t expect anything from it, because it’s not effective until suddenly it is. Some invisible metric eclipses an invisible benchmark and the folks in charge relent to your demands—some of them, all of them, one aspect of one thing. Or maybe it’s more oblique than that. It changes the minds of a certain amount of the previously moderate or uninterested, and that is what panics the folks in charge into action. The irascible leftist, so confident in moral matters, is an admittedly novice tactician. He can tell you what is right, but not what works. And anyway, almost nobody cares what he thinks.
But he and LeBron and George Hill, Craig Hodges and Barack Obama, Steve Kerr and Adam Silver and maybe even some NBA owners all share exactly two things: they live in America, and they’re appalled by what they see. Black men are doubly appalled; they have often experienced what the rest of us see firsthand, treated by police as malignancies, as if they were intrinsically worse or lesser than other people, at a cellular level more violent, criminality in their spit and blood, needing, as Kenosha County sheriff David Beth characterized a group of black shoplifters, to be: “[put away] for the rest of their lives so the rest of us can be better… these people need to flat out go away… maybe what we’ve got to do is build warehouses, and when these people are gone, when they have perished in these buildings, we can turn them into something else… we have to get rid of these people.”
This sentiment, the beatings and killings carried out by law enforcement agents who think this way, a professional culture poisoned as a Chernobyl well, is as easy to stand against as an unjust war. You can reject it completely. Essence, broad consensus: we’re appalled, the sane among us, and agree that something needs to be done. NBA players, in perfect solidarity, announced themselves sane on Wednesday. What did it accomplish? Tame stuff, vague stuff. But it was a step in the right direction.
Now the drudgery starts, or it puts people off. How much effort are they willing to put toward their conviction? Not enough to heal society by themselves, but that is not how this works. Even the irascible leftist—morally superior, otherwise idiot—knows that. The template is the same for mortals and athletic superheroes: you do some reading, you speak up and listen, you organize and march, you throw some money around if you’ve got it. Primarily, you fail a lot. It’s deeply aggravating, at times, how little it seems you can change. It’s probably extra satisfying and extra stressful, if you are famous. To be popular is to be on the verge of being very unpopular; the public is fickle. Police reform, healthcare reform, environmental justice, whatever—you have to be in it because you believe you’re on the correct side. You have to not forget how appalled you are by the status quo. Many, perhaps even all, NBA players feel that right now. That’s positive, that’s healthy. If they begin with and continually return to that outrage, they can’t go wrong.
Whether or not they’re pleased with the results, or at least with their commitment to the cause, is an individual’s determination. You live in a world created by other people, and you live with yourself. They are both disappointing. It’s stubbornly trying to contrive situations in which you will not be disappointed, arriving briefly at wonder or pride, that you might call a productive life. You wonder if celebrities, with their wealth and influence, have a greater ability to do this, or if it’s deadened by scale and they regard their x-ray vision the same way you do your regular sight. But you know they can be disappointed, moved to action by it. Maybe disappointment—running away from it screaming—is how this works. No, that likely isn’t it.
It occurs to you, the irascible leftist, that you are confused constantly, in trying to do the right thing, and that for all your effort—not enough!—you don’t have answers. You are often unsure what the doing in doing the right thing means. Well, you remark, walking off the site of your extremely high-profile job for a few days is definitely something like doing the right thing. It helps. The arithmetic is foggy, but the metrics go up. If this is all NBA players do—not a chance—then alright, and if they do more, fantastic. Planning is important, clarity is elusive, but the doing, provided it’s not spectacularly wrongheaded, moves us unidirectionally toward a solution, however incrementally.
So finally we end at a start, where we always seem to end up. Mailer in ‘67: “[America] is heavy with child—no one knows if legitimate—and languishes in a dungeon whose walls are never seen.” George Hill, repeated from above: “it’s just a really messed up situation right now.” Maybe it merely appears that we are always at a start, because there is always so much left to do. But we have moved, made progress. Have we? Maybe this works, maybe it is working, I don’t know how. We can only give it another try, in greater strength and numbers than before.