Legendary Olympian puts Charles Barkley in his place

John Carlos | New York Daily News / Hermann, Marc, A.

John Carlos | New York Daily News / HERMANN, MARC, A.

A comment by TONY SEED

John Carlos and Charles Barkley are both “mavericks”, but only one ever put his life and livelihood on the line. Both have political opinions, one progressive and the other crude and self-serving. The former are little known, the latter are widely propagated. One champions popular resistance to state-sanctioned murder, the other police impunity. One gets by, the other is a big property owner and businessman, who enriched himself by capitalizing on his considerable skills through professional sport and TV, with an estimated net worth of $30 million. One website says he pulled in an obscene $46 million between November 2013 and November 2014, a nearly $20 million lead over his closest competition amongst pro athletes:

“He owes his fortune to smart stock investments, substantial property holdings, lucrative endorsement deals with CoverGirl cosmetics. He also owns several restaurants (the “Fat Barkley Burger” chain) in Washington, a Football Team (the “Leeds Angels”), has launched his own brand of Vodka (Pure Wonderbarkley – US), and is tackling the juniors market with a top-selling perfume (With Love from Charles) and a fashion line called “Charles Barkley Seduction”.

Barkley recently expressed his pathetic support for the grand jury’s decision not to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in August. He asserted that the few Ferguson protesters who looted local businesses are “scumbags,” but “Cops are actually awesome.” He stressed, “They are the only thing in the ghetto between this place being the ‘Wild, Wild West.’” He went so far as to assert that not all racial profiling is wrong. In reference to unarmed Eric Garner’s death at the hands of New York police he went even further. “When the cops are trying to arrest you, if you fight back, things go wrong. I don’t think they were trying to kill Mr. Garner. He was a big man and they tried to get him down.”

Barkley was rightly denounced as an Uncle Tom, but there is more to it. His philosophy is the “brash in-your-face” outlook accompanied with glaring that has become popular in American sports, something that does not extend to property right and police impunity. Barkley’s comments are therefore imbued with the same national chauvinism as Obama’s “one nation politics.” He refuses to abandon the values and programme of state terrorism, let alone to present views and information that would advance the people’s resistance and unity. In other words, the concept being presented is that of the USA as a country under siege – “Wild, Wild West” – due to the  “scumbags” which are put on the level of “terrorists” that pose a danger to its security. In this vein, Obama’s agenda for “law and order” and “reforms” under the veil of “dialogue” and “debate” is not just addressed to the issues of crime, e.g., looting. It is aimed at strengthening the US police state, militarizing the police forces, and criminalizing resistance as well as conscience. The governor of the state of Missouri, a Democrat and ally of the Obama administration, twice declared a state of emergency and on both occasions deployed the National Guard to impose a virtual state of siege.

The Obama administration is seeking to contain popular anger over these and many other police killings, and the Barkley interviews are part of this process. Coming in the immediate wake of the public stand of the St. Louis football players on Sunday, November 30 – two days before – the venal monopoly media feverishly jumped on his backward and reactionary opinions and orchestrated them widely. A strident, stage-managed, studio interview with CNN was repeatedly rebroadcast over two days on December 2nd and 3rd. In the face of the broadening of the protest movement to the sphere of sport and even more cities within the USA and internationally, the ruling elite needed a diversion as part of Obama’s call for a national dialogue and “debate,” where the state holds all the trump cards. It played the “black versus white” card. The questions by CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin remained at a low level, all directed toward making Barkley dismiss a growing national resistance to a police state, which he obediently did, according to the well-established rules of the CNN public interview genre.  The aim is to set the ground to turn those who do not submit to the status quo and to the direction in which Obama’s regime is taking the country into unlawful enemy combatants, because they pose a threat to national security and the good of the community (such as Ferguson) and the USA itself. 

Harassment and abuse is a constant feature of life for residents of all backgrounds in many impoverished cities and neighbourhoods throughout the United States. At no time is a policing system that operates above the law and with complete contempt for basic democratic rights discussed.  

John Carlos weighs in

“Keep your head down and your mouth shut. Play the game. Smile for the camera. Collect your fat paycheck. And go home,” writes Roxanne Jones, a former vice-president of ESPN, on CNN.

It is not true that big capital does not want athletes to have opinions. All athletes who speak for democratic rights are blocked without exception. Baseball player Magglio Ordóñez and manager Ozzie Guillen were vilified by the U.S. monopoly media and the ultra-right for comments in support of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, respectively. Boxer Kirk Johnson and basketball player Dee Brown were sanctioned for opposing racial profiling. While everyone speaks in the name of high ideals, it is only those opinions that serve the agenda of the U.S. ruling class and those who control professional sports which are popularized and used for the most anti-social aims.

Now John Carlos, the legendary track and field athlete well-known for his courageous black power salute with Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics – winners of the men’s 200 metre bronze and gold medals respectively – has spoken out against Barkley’s outrageous justification of police impunity. Carlos knows Barkley personally, having once trained him to run in a staged competition against Dick Cavetta, an experienced, popular and well-conditioned NBA referee during the 2007 NBA All Star Weekend.

The role of the media has been like day and night. It is hard to find more than a few snippets of Carlos’ comments in the media, which framed Barkley as the dominant voice. A Dec. 3 phone interview of John Carlos by Ashleigh Banfield of CNN was not put online until December 6th. A previous interview on CNN – three years ago– was cut off “due to technical difficulties.” That says a good deal about professional sports, the media, elite accommodation, and the broader social atmosphere today.

Carlos thought Barkley had ulterior motives in siding with the grand jury’s non-indictment.

“He’s just looking for political votes down the line,” he told the New York Daily News.

“If you don’t have anything good to say, you should keep your mouth shut,” he advised his ex-student. “I don’t know where Mr. Barkley gets his reports. He’s a basketball commentator. It’s not like he’s in the legal field. He shouldn’t be saying derogatory things.”

Carlos encouraged prominent Black personalities to speak out against inequality and state terrorism. Carlos, unlike Barkley, praised the five St. Louis Rams football players, who used a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture before their game Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.

“Not just athletes,” Carlos said. “Puff Daddy, Snoop (Dogg), we haven’t heard much from those individuals or our black movie stars out there. They chose to take the back seat. How many millions of dollars do you have to have in your bank account before you speak your mind?”

“This is an ongoing thing, not just Mr. Brown, a lot of individuals of color being assassinated,” said Carlos, who wrote a bookwith The Nation‘s Dave Zirin, “The John Carlos Story,” to tell his own tale, to the Daily News. “Everybody just assumes they did something wrong. Even if they did, it’s not justifiable to kill them.”

The example of Peter Norman and of 1968

There is a significant background to his comments. Carlos has been trying for years to get athletes to speak out, to act out, about social inequities. He has repeatedly praised Muhammad Ali while condemning Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and black rap stars for their lack of political gumption. Now, though, Carlos is greatly encouraged by what he saw from the five Rams — who have gone unpunished by the NFL, despite demands from police organizations to penalize the mild protest.

“I think it’s changing right before our eyes,” Carlos said. “These men are giving voice to the voiceless. They’re doing the right thing and taking a stance. So many others might feel that way. I’m just pleased to see some more Peter Normans out there.”

“Peter Normans” (plural) is not a typo. That reference is significant. Norman was repressed, like Carlos.

Peter Norman was the unsung Australian silver medalist in 1968 who stood on the same podium with Smith and Carlos. Norman told reporters at Mexico: “I believe in civil rights. Every man is born equal and should be treated that way.” Both Norman and Martin Jellinghaus, a member of the German bronze medal-winning 1600-meter relay team, also wore “Olympic Project for Human Rights” buttons at the games to show support for the banished American sprinters. He was reprimanded by his own Olympic federation, then prevented by his own country from participating in the 1972 Munich Summer Games although he had qualified in every respect. It did it by simply not taking any sprinters, for the first and only time. He was again ignored by the 2000 Sydney Olympics. 

After retiring from athletics, Norman worked for 20 years as a teacher at Williamstown Technical School, where he was a union activist in the technical teachers’ union, and was often selected as a spokesman for union delegations.

Norman died on October 3, 2006 of a heart attack. In a moving tribute, Smith and Carlos flew to Australia to deliver eulogies at his funeral in Melbourne. They recounted how they asked him, as they walked through the tunnel to the medals ceremony, whether he supported them in the action they intended to take. Norman replied that he agreed with human rights for everybody and would stand with them.

“That whole experience didn’t take me away from who I am and what I stand for,” Carlos said.

Contacted in 1998, 30 years after his protest, Tommie Smith reaffirmed his beliefs. “I have no regrets,” he stated. “I will never have any regrets. We were there to stand up for human rights and to stand up for Black Americans. We wanted to make them better in the United States.”

There is, of course, a large dose of profound hypocrisy in the media framing of John Carlos as an “iconic figure”; it conveniently overlooks what the 1968 protest of the three athletes was actually about, which to this day remains a symbol of the struggle against oppression. The two athletes, members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, believed that their political action would demonstrate that even those few Blacks who had achieved success were dis-satisfied with the state of civil rights in the United States.

Their primary political aims were threefold and specific: to reinstate Muhammad Ali as heavyweight boxing champion of the world; to remove the racist and pro-Nazi Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee; and to remove South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics. (Megan Falater, in Matthew Whitaker, ed., Icons of Black America: Breaking Barriers and Crossing Boundaries, 2011, p. 824) The stand taken by Carlos and Smith was widely interpreted as a challenge to those in power in America. Olympic officials and US politicians certainly felt threatened. Brundage’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) vehemently demanded disciplinary action. Within 30 hours of the protest, the athletes were suspended and placed on a plane back to America by the USOC (United States Olympic Committee).

Carlos said that he and Smith felt their principles were more important than medals. Decades later, a 20-foot-statue has been erected in John Carlos’ honour at San Jose State Univerity. No one remembers Avery Brundage, overt supporter of Hitler, Mussolini, and racist and fascist South Africa. 

“Barkley, meanwhile,” the Daily News writer pointed out derisively, “has made noise in the past about running for office, at times as a Republican and others as a Democrat. Nobody is quite certain what he stands for, except boxing out underneath the basket.”

His stand is quite clear. Such views orchestrated by the media threaten to strangle everything positive about the response and resistance of the American people, showing their moribund character. Further, it shows the need for more and more athletes to respond to John Carlos’ challenge and to speak out to restrict the reactionary drive of the U.S. state and stand for a human-centred society where the rights of all are guaranteed. 

The stand of John Carlos speaks to a different sort of human personality – one drawn to principles and able to resist the corrupting pressures of the sports-media-entertainment industry and to take the side of the people in the defence of their rights.

With files from news agencies

Tommie Smith and John Carlos (r.) raise fists and bow heads at the 1968 Olympic Games.

Mexico City, October 16, 1968: U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos (right) take the podium for their medal ceremony and raise their fists in the Black Power salute. Also pictured is Australian runner Peter Norman who wore a civil rights badge in solidarity. Smith and Carlos took their places on the podium in stocking feet and wearing civil rights badges. As the Star Spangled Banner was played, they each lowered their heads and in an act of protest and solidarity raised a black-gloved fist in the Black Power salute. They were expelled from the Olympic Village, suspended from the U.S. Olympic team, and banned from the Olympics for life. What is overlooked is that the swift and brutal attack on the athletes was spearheaded by American financier Avery Brundage, head of the IOC from 1952 to 1972. Brundage first gained a seat on the IOC after the sitting US representative was expelled for urging athletes to boycott the Berlin games in 1936. This is the only time any member of the IOC has been expelled. The 1936 Olympics saw the Nazification of sport in Germany, and the use of the Olympics to promote fascism, chauvinism and revanchism. In reality, Brundage was pro-Nazi, a virulent anti-Communist and anti-Semite who believed that there was a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” that existed to keep the United States out of competing in the Berlin Olympics. Brundage could see no evil whether it was the Berlin Olympics, where he raised no objection to the use of the Nazi salute, or apartheid in South Africa or Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and the admission of “all-white” athletes from apartheid regimes.

View of Kenny Smith

NBA analyst Kenny Smith has penned an open letter to his colleague Charles Barkley about his scathing opinions on Ferguson. Although Smith’s tactful letter leaves much to be desired (and critiqued), he made it clear he doesn’t feel media should be asking the NBA legend about politics and race, and putting his opinions on the same pedestal as President Obama and Rev. Al Sharpton.

Smith didn’t agree with Barkley calling the handful of people who chose to burn buildings “scumbags.” Smith hopes Barkley will understand why there is a distrust of cops in the Black community.

An excerpt from the open letter reads:

“However, what I consistently find interesting is how writers and media members view your insights in politics, and now race relations, with the same reverence as your insights in sports.

They did it in the Trayvon Martin trial and now with Mike Brown and the decision in Ferguson. It’s not that you shouldn’t ever have an opinion, but you are often quoted alongside the likes of Al Sharpton and even President Obama. I would hope that Sharpton or President Obama would never be referenced with you when picking the next NBA Champs!

The body of work that our Black Civil Rights leaders put in by planning, executing and activating does not justify you being in the conversation. While your body of work on the court very few compare to nor should be mentioned when you are giving your expert analysis. Again, I respect that you have an opinion on Ferguson. And here’s mine.

The question must be asked: Why is there so much distrust in the police and the legal system from the African American community? Without manifesting what the effects of slavery still have today, Dec 1st still marks only 59 years since Rosa Parks sat on that memorable bus. Many of our parents and grandparents have lived through those times and have passed those stories on to all of us. Those civil rights changes were at one time the law! They were not illegal.

So did the protection of the law by the courts and police make it right? Obviously not, so as African Americans we still know and feel that there are laws and jurisdictions that severely penalize the poor and, most importantly, African Americans greater than any other group. Some laws were initially made without us as equals in mind; that’s just the facts. So the thought process that it’s not for us or by us will unfortunately lead to distrust.

[…]

That leads me to the looters and civilians burning buildings which you referred to as ‘scumbags.’ Here’s an analogy: If you put 100 people on an island with no food, no water, no hope of a ship coming, then some will overcome it and be resourceful, some will live in it, others will panic and others will show horrific character, which is wrong. But not to understand that all alternatives are possible is wrong as well.

I was also disheartened to see the reaction of burning buildings and looters by some. However, when you are in ‘The Struggle’ to not expect that that potential reaction is foolish on our part.

The real issue is learning to positively manage your anger so you can be heard. It’s not that they are ‘scumbags,’ their emotions won’t allow them to rationally think through their anger. I applaud that you have done a great job in your anger management in recent times … but not always.”

Smith’s letter came only a day after Olympian John Carlos ripped into Barkley about his Ferguson comments.

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