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On Friday, outside Capital One Arena, Bradley Beal and Natasha Cloud stood, backed by dozens of Wizards and Mystics teammates, coaches and staff members. They addressed a crowd of thousands who came to march peacefully in support of Black Lives Matter, in protest of racial injustice and police brutality, and in celebration of Juneteenth, which commemorates the true emancipation of the last remaining American slaves 155 years ago.
“Juneteenth is a day of celebration,” Cloud said. “It’s a day of liberation. It’s a day that we were finally freed from our bondage. We couldn’t think of a better day than today to come out here and come together, collectively and unified in solidarity with one another for a greater cause.”
Cloud passed the microphone to Beal, who reflected on the significance of Juneteenth in 2020 and the new meaning it has taken on as America reckons with its treatment, both historic and contemporary, of its black communities.
“They say Juneteenth is a day of celebration of freedom, a day of reflection upon the struggle that was endured,” Beal said to the crowd. “Last night, I had a little bit of time to reflect. The question that dawned on me is ‘what is freedom?’ By definition, it is the ability to act and speak whenever you want, (about) whatever you want without any restraint. But another question I ask myself is ‘how can the black community feel free in a world where racism and discrimination and prejudice are normalized and condoned, where these things are taught and passed down generation to generation, encouraged and often times celebrated? How does the black community grow when lives are taken from them without justice and without any consequences?’”
Beal then explained the symbolism of the closed fist which sat front and center on the t-shirts worn by each player, coach and staff member in attendance.
“We have five fingers,” Beal said. “The fist always represents the solidarity of a team.”
Beal opened his hand.
“Whenever we get selfish and out of our ways, coach always puts up five fingers to show as individuals, there’s no power,” he said. “The same applies for us in the everyday world.”
Beal closed his hand into a fist.
“There is power in unity,” he said. “There is power in strength.”
The image of the teams outside the arena was reflective of their response as a whole to the unrest the nation has wrestled with since the murder of George Floyd over three weeks ago. The group stood in unison, backed by the organization and empowered to use their platform to inspire change, but behind clear leadership from Beal and Cloud.
“Bradley Beal has been so special during this time,” Wizards guard Ish Smith said on The Athletic’s Wizards After Dark podcast earlier this week.
Smith and Wizards center Ian Mahinmi each credit Beal with constructing and encouraging the unified statement the players put out on their social media channels following Floyd’s death.
“He came up with that statement,” Smith continued. “He sent it to us, asked us what we thought of it. I was speechless…It was so powerful what he said and so to the point…Brad has been special during this whole time and he means it.”
Beal, however, credits Cloud with organizing Friday’s rally and march.
“This was her idea,” Beal said. “She actually hit me up a couple weeks ago wanting to do a march and I was all in. We pitched it to the rest of our teams, and we all agreed that it was something that was going to be powerful and meaningful to us…We have a voice. We have a platform. This is just one of the ways we’re going to utilize it, with this march. As Coach (John) Thompson (III) said, this isn’t going to be the last of our work. We have more work to follow up after this too.”
Cloud is no stranger to lending her voice to causes she believes in. For years, she’s spoke loudly about the perils of gun violence, specifically in the D.C. community, and the impact that is has, not just on our world today, but on the world that the youngest generations will be left to live in.
Since Floyd’s murder, Cloud has been one of the basketball community’s foremost leaders in calling for an end to the race-based oppression that plagues the country, speaking out and even marching in her hometown of Philadelphia. Her call to action, however, goes beyond merely weeding out those who actively participate in the oppression. As detailed in an article she wrote for The Players’ Tribune, “Your Silence Is a Knee on My Neck,” Cloud makes it clear that this is no time for silence or passive neutrality.
“We can’t ignore this anymore,” Cloud said to the crowd on Friday. “That’s been our message to everyone in America. You can’t ignore this anymore. Your silence is a knee on our neck. Your neutrality is taking the side of the oppressor. With Black Lives Matter Plaza, you have to see it. You have to wake up to it every single say. You have to go by it every day. It’s a subtle reminder that we’re here and we still matter. Our lives have always mattered and until black lives matter, not all lives matter.”
Following the rally outside the arena, the players, holding a sign that read “Together We Stand,” led the crowd on a peaceful march down 7th Street, onto Constitution Avenue, past the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, past the Washington Monument and across the National Mall.
As they walked through the streets, players used megaphones to lead the crowd in chants of “no justice, no peace,” “this is what democracy looks like,” and “black lives matter,” among others.
The player-led group proceeded onto Independence Avenue before arriving at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Upon arrival at the memorial, players and coaches from both the Mystics and Wizards read a list of names who have died as a result of racial injustice or police brutality.
“In this list of names, some have gotten justice, and some haven’t,” Beal said. “It’s our duty to make sure these people see their justice and that their families see their justice. We have to do it together, collectively."
Beal reflected on the extra weight he feels as a father of two young boys, trying to grasp the similarities and differences between the world he grew up in and the world they will grow up in – and the obligation he has to do everything in his power to create a better life for them.
“I have an opportunity,” Beal said. “If I fail, I fail, but I can’t sit here and say I didn’t try and put up an effort because I’ve been blessed with a platform and an opportunity to do so, so I’m going to ride this train until the wheels fall off, man.”
“There will be no more sweeping harsh realities under the rug or putting band-aids on scars just to rip them off down the line,” Beal said. “It’s time we hold everybody accountable. We have to call out the lawmakers and law officials, the state and city reps, DAs, judges, politicians, police unions – everybody who deems themselves and enforcer of the law has to be held accountable. Justice is demanded. Sustainable change is necessary. But we know that we all have to continue to do our part in the community. We’re dedicated up here as a team as one unit. We’re going to continue to protect this community. We’re going to continue to invest in this community, but we need you guys as well. This is our home.”
“This march was just a steppingstone. Now our real action and our real trials begin. Together we stand.”