June 27, 2020 

Behind the scenes of the Washington Mystics’ Juneteenth march for racial justice

Myisha Hines-Allen came up with the idea, inspired by Natasha Cloud’s example

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“You can’t ignore this anymore. Your silence is a knee on our neck. Your neutrality is taking the side of the oppressor.”

Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud spoke those words at a rally on Juneteenth, just before she and several of her teammates led a march through downtown DC to honor George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and others who have been killed by police.

Cloud was the Mystic addressing the crowd, and she has been one of the most outspoken players in the WNBA about social issues both before and since Floyd’s death. However, the idea for the rally and march came not from Cloud, but from third-year forward Myisha Hines-Allen.

Floyd’s death “was just a wake-up call,” Hines-Allen told The Next. As a college athlete, Hines-Allen had done plenty of community service, most of it focused on underprivileged children and children with disabilities, but she had never organized anything like the rally or the march before. She explained, “It was just something that I felt like needed to be done, just to show the community that we are not just athletes, but people as well, and this could’ve happened to us, too.”

The rally was held at Capital One Arena, the Wizards’ current and the Mystics’ former home court. Carrying a long banner reading “Together We Stand,” the players and a sizeable crowd marched south and then west, passing the National Museum of African American History and Culture en route to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

Some players, including Hines-Allen and Wizards stars John Wall and Bradley Beal, carried megaphones on the 1.9-mile march and led the crowd in chants of “No justice, no peace! No racist police,” “This is what democracy looks like,” and “Black lives matter!” Along with Cloud and Hines-Allen, the participants included current Mystics Ariel Atkins, Tianna Hawkins, and Aerial Powers; former Mystics Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Kristi Toliver; Mystics associate head coach Eric Thibault; and Zach Leonsis, the senior vice president of strategic initiatives for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the group that owns the Mystics and the Wizards.

Top: Cloud (center) and Aerial Powers (right) hold up “Black Lives Matter” signs; Bottom: Myisha Hines-Allen leads the crowd in chants during the team’s march on Juneteenth.

Hines-Allen was inspired to suggest a march partly because of the example that Cloud has set over the past few years. She pitched the idea to Cloud, who was supportive, and they reached out to team staff for help organizing it. “Tash is definitely someone I look up to,” Hines-Allen said. “… On the basketball court, of course, because she’s phenomenal, but off the court, she’s an amazing person. She knows how to use her voice, and when she feels strongly about something, she’s going to speak up. Doesn’t matter what other people … think about it; Tash always, will always speak up. And that’s just something I admire about her the most.”

Hines-Allen had envisioned the event as a joint effort with the Wizards from the start. On June 6, the two teams published an open letter sharing their reaction to the killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and promising action. “Everyone plays a significant role in the bettering of this world. At the same time, it must be done together,” they wrote. “Our actions must speak louder than our words. … Change is coming, and we must take advantage of this time to bring about the change that our cities, states, and nation need.”

However, the fact that the Mystics and Wizards players were spread all over the world made the logistics of a march more complicated. The decision to hold it on Juneteenth—the day in 1865 that many slaves learned they were free—was originally pragmatic, as many of the Wizards players had returned to DC earlier that week to prepare for the NBA to restart. But once the date was suggested, the players immediately latched onto its significance.

“Juneteenth is a day of celebration. It’s a day of liberation,” Cloud said at the rally. “… We couldn’t think of a better day than today to come out here and come together.”

“It fell perfectly,” Hines-Allen told The Next.

The coronavirus pandemic also impacted the planning process. All of the players got tested for COVID-19 before the march, and the team consulted with a doctor on how to minimize the health risks. During the rally and the march, players generally wore masks when they weren’t talking, and many wore gloves as an additional precaution.

With those protections in place, Hines-Allen wasn’t worried during the march about potentially being exposed to COVID-19. “I was thinking about fighting for myself, my people, and not really thinking about the virus as much,” she said. “… I was more so focused on making an impact in the sense of having our voices heard.”

After the group arrived at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, players from both teams took turns reading a short list of the names of people who have been killed by police. Hines-Allen started reading: “George Floyd. Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Ahmaud Arbery.” She said about half a dozen more names before passing on the megaphone.

Hines-Allen said listening to those names was the most emotional part of the day for her. “It just [kept] going, kept going, kept going,” she reflected. “… That’s not even all the names [of people] that have been murdered. So just to think about it that way is just like, ‘Wow, we have a lot of work to do.’”

Only about half of the Mystics’ current roster was able to participate in the rally and the march, but others, including 2019 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, voiced their support. The same was true when Cloud and teammate LaToya Sanders announced on June 22 that they will not play in the 2020 WNBA season—Cloud to focus on social justice and Sanders for health and family reasons.

From left to right: Delle Donne voiced support for the march on Instagram on June 19; Delle Donne and Cloud reacted to Cloud and Sanders’s decisions to sit out this season on June 22; several Mystics teammates replied to Cloud announcing her decision on Instagram on June 22 and 23; and new teammate Tina Charles voiced support for Cloud on Instagram on June 22.

Hines-Allen said, “What makes us such a great team is we’re a family. … That’s why you see us communicating on social media the way we do, because we truly care for each other.”

In Players’ Tribune article earlier this month, Cloud explained the significance of Delle Donne, who is white, speaking out about racism. “You have no idea what that does to my spirits, or what that means to me,” she wrote. “I saw Elena’s [Instagram story], and I was just like….. Ahhh, I fucking KNEW my teammate would have my back. I knew it. And that felt so good. … even that ONE post on its own, it took just a little bit of the weight off my shoulders. It made me feel just a little less powerless in this world.”

In their joint letter with the Wizards, the Mystics players and coaches promised to speak out and take action. The two teams are still planning their next move, which will have to take into account both teams’ schedules as they prepare to resume their seasons at separate locations in Florida. However, Hines-Allen promised that the literal and figurative steps they took on Juneteenth will not be the last they take for social justice.

“The Mystics [and] the Wizards are not done with having our voices heard,” Hines-Allen said. “… This is just a steppingstone. … There’s definitely going to be more of us [getting] out in the community.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.

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