May 26, 2021
Ariel Atkins, Natasha Cloud lead Washington Mystics’ statements on anniversary of George Floyd’s murder
Atkins and Cloud used the postgame press conference to highlight the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act
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The Washington Mystics’ postgame press conference on Tuesday night began like any other, with head coach Mike Thibault commenting on his team’s 85-69 victory over the Indiana Fever. Tina Charles, who scored a game-high 30 points, then discussed the team’s improved defense as well as her own performance.
Both Thibault and Charles were also asked about the significance of the date, May 25, which was the one-year anniversary of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, murdering George Floyd. But the press conference remained mostly focused on basketball until Ariel Atkins took her seat for questions.
“I appreciate your question,” she said after the first reporter to speak asked about the Mystics’ defense. “But as we all kind of know, it’s been a year since George Floyd had been passed away. So, if you don’t mind, I want to open up with something about that.”
Atkins spoke about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which is pending in Congress and would reform policing in a variety of ways, including by banning police from using chokeholds or no-knock warrants and eliminating qualified immunity, a legal principle that can allow police officers to avoid being sued for misconduct. Floyd, a Black man, died because former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly ten minutes, and a no-knock warrant led to police killing Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, in her home in March 2020.
The Justice in Policing Act narrowly passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Mar. 3, a few weeks before Chauvin’s murder trial began. It has not yet been brought to a vote in the U.S. Senate, despite President Joe Biden’s stated desire to pass a bill by the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder and efforts by bipartisan negotiators to revise the legislation to garner support from more senators.
“We all have the opportunity to call our senators to get [the Justice in Policing Act] passed. And if that’s something that you guys are interested in, I’d really appreciate that,” Atkins told the media on Tuesday. “And … I would really appreciate if that’s the biggest thing that you take away from whatever we talk about here today.”
Atkins took follow-up questions related to social justice but declined to answer any questions about the game. She admitted that balancing a basketball season with her desire to effect change has been stressful, and she is still figuring out how best to support social justice now that WNBA teams are playing in their home cities rather than at a single site.
“How do I find ways to push our community forward? How do I use the resources that I have in DC, or even the resources that I have back home in Dallas?” Atkins asked rhetorically. “How do I find ways to help empower Black women in our Black communities and our Black and Brown sisters and brothers? So yes, it’s emotional tonight, and I just want to give all my love and my prayer and my … condolences to George Floyd’s family.”
Natasha Cloud, who like Atkins is considered one of the Mystics’ leaders both on and off the court, was the final player to address the media. Cloud had released a statement on social media before the game condemning discriminatory policing and urging the public to call their senators in support of the Justice in Policing Act.
After the game, Cloud made a single statement that lasted about 90 seconds, and she did not take questions. Here is that statement:
“Today marks a day that George Floyd was brutally murdered at the hands of police in which they were finally convicted. I think in the last however many years, there’s only been one conviction and that was this one, so what I’m going to do is not talk about the game because the focus still needs to be on social reform and social justice, especially for Black and Brown communities, and discriminatory policing towards Black and Brown communities.
“So what I’m going to do is tell y’all to write about people reaching out to the state senators. We need to ban chokeholds and other restrictive maneuvers. We need to end qualified immunity for all government actors. Don’t back down; keep raising your voice. Tell Congress we need better accountability policies to meaningfully address rampant systemic racism in policing. Ban racial and religious profiling. Prohibit no-knock warrants. Breonna Taylor – say her name. Mandate a federal standard that use of force only be used when necessary. Demilitarize our police. Develop a national public database of police misconduct. Strengthen the federal government’s ability to hold officers accountable for rights violations while on duty.
“I hope you all stay safe; we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. And I hope you focus on what today should be focused on, not this game. We’re talking about Black and Brown people’s lives, so thank y’all. Stay safe. Go Mystics.”
The press conference had echoes of a media blackout that the Mystics players held in June 2019 in response to gun violence near their home arena. However, none of the players answered questions on any topic during the 2019 blackout, whereas Cloud, Atkins, Charles and Thibault all responded to the anniversary of Floyd’s murder in their own ways. Thibault indicated that social justice discussions were ongoing within the team and that there was not a coordinated discussion on Tuesday about the anniversary.
“It’s been kind of put in front of us every day,” Thibault said regarding social justice. “I mean, our team is on the screen on almost everything [when people] talk about athlete involvement from last summer. … Our players are very aware of it, and we’ve had discussions lately, not specifically about that, but things that we can do more of in our community to be involved and continue what we started last summer.”
Atkins added that these discussions are happening all across the league and that the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) is helping teams connect with local organizations to promote social justice reform. On Tuesday, the WNBPA released a statement similar to those of Cloud and Atkins supporting the Justice in Policing Act. The WNBPA also played a critical role in social justice conversations last season, from ensuring that the season would be dedicated to social justice and the Say Her Name campaign to helping the players decide as a group whether and how to move forward with the season after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake last August.
As Thibault alluded to, the Mystics were at the forefront of the league’s response to the Jacob Blake shooting, and the image of them wearing t-shirts with seven holes in the back—one for every bullet that hit Blake—became an indelible moment from last summer. They were the first team to decide not to play on Aug. 26, and Atkins spoke for her team about that decision on national television. The other 11 teams followed suit, resulting in two days of canceled games and a recommitment to social justice and advocacy midway through the season.
Despite the best efforts of the Mystics and the rest of the WNBA, Atkins said on Tuesday that, in some ways, she does not believe that the United States has progressed in the year since Floyd’s murder.
“I want to say yes and no. I say yes because it’s visual, we see it, we’re listening, we’re trying to have these conversations,” she said. “But I say no because the hard things need to be done. We don’t want a day, we don’t want a week, we don’t want a month. We want things to actually be changed on the ground.
“We need the foundation to be cracked a little bit because this country, honestly, was built on power … It wasn’t built with everybody in mind. So we need to break it down from the ground up and find a way to rebuild. And if we really want to talk about unity and freedom, it needs to be for all.”
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.