Last Sunday, before the game between the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland wide receiver Andrew Hawkins walked out on the pregame field wearing a T-shirt to challenge our nation’s conscience.
The front of his shirt read, “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford III.” On the back: “The real Battle of Ohio.”
I wish I could assume that everyone knows about Tamir Rice and John Crawford by now and I could just get to what happened next, but I know that’s not true. So much recent coverage of our nation’s nightmare has focused, rightfully so, on two other unarmed black males who died at the hands of police, one in a shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and one in a chokehold in Staten Island, New York.
We’ve got a deep brew of racial tension roiling in Ohio, too. I was born and raised here and call Cleveland home. This is personal — and in the worst way, because here we are blinking fast and trying to explain how we didn’t stop the trouble we could see coming.
Some who do know about Tamir Rice and John Crawford will take issue with my use of the word “other,” as in other unarmed black males, because unlike Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Tamir and Crawford were wielding air guns. You can buy these off the shelf at Wal-Mart, which is where Crawford was standing when he was killed in suburban Dayton. Their pellet guns were no match for police bullets. Some people like to move right past that life-altering fact as if it were just a footnote, but the gravestones tell the story.
Also, I wince every time I write “males” rather than the more human-sounding “men,” but Tamir Rice was only 12 years old when he was gunned down last month in a public park two seconds after the police car pulled up virtually next to him. He was six years from manhood, and any mother who has raised a son knows that’s a made-up milestone anyway.
After Andrew Hawkins wore that T-shirt on the field, the white lame-duck president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association demanded an apology from the Browns, who refused.
Calling Hawkins’ protest “pathetic,” Jeff Follmer said athletes “should stick to what they know best on the field.” He doubled down in an interview with MSNBC’s Ari Melber, declaring “justified” Tamir Rice’s death, which is under investigation. He also offered this bit of advice to Americans concerned about excessive use of police force:
“How about this: Listen to police officers’ commands. Listen to what we tell you, and just stop. I think that eliminates a lot of problems.”
Follmer’s equally white successor, Steve Loomis, offered a long-winded response to Cleveland’s Scene magazine, including a review of entertainers when it comes to political skills — “incredibly under qualified” — and a likening of football players such as Hawkins to the Dixie Chicks.
With tag team precision, Follmer and Loomis delivered a double whammy of head-smacking outrage for those of us who are both white and supporters of organized labor.
A little purple- and cream-colored booklet sits next to my keyboard as I type. It’s my union father’s 1974 AFL-CIO Song Book, issued, if you can believe it, by the Department of Education. On Page 21, wedged between the songs “Joe Hill” and “You Gotta Go Down,” is the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.”
The days are long gone — decades gone — when a white guy could flash his union card and order a black man to keep his mouth shut.
So, let’s talk about that remarkable young man named Andrew Hawkins.
Hours after he wore that T-shirt, he faced a throng of news cameras and, in a soft, unscripted voice, explained to the nation why he would not be silent.
His name is Austin. He’s 2 years old.
“That little boy is my entire world,” Hawkins said Monday about his son. “And the No. 1 reason for me wearing the T-shirt was the thought of what happened to Tamir Rice happening to my little Austin” — deep breath — “scares the living hell out of me.” His voice began to break. “And my heart was broken for the parents of Tamir and John Crawford, knowing they had to live that nightmare of a reality.”
For the rest of his life — and may it be a long and glorious one — Austin Hawkins will know that his father loved him this much. A boy so certain of his father’s devotion becomes a man certain of his place in the world.
May he outlive all who would insist he just shut up.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.