Former A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell brought Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest to the baseball diamond in 2017. The protest was met with support within the Coliseum walls and offices, but brought on death threats and scrutiny from observers outside. Hesitation and, sometimes, critique from those throughout baseball.
Newest Oakland Athletic Tony Kemp — in the wake of George Floyd’s killing under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin — is bringing protest back to Oakland. Unlike Maxwell three years ago, Kemp won’t protest alone. Baseball players that make up The Players Alliance plan to perform a type of protest of their choosing on opening day in this shortened 2020 season.
“For opening day, most guys will have a different avenue, some guys might have a black cloth, might kneel, some guys might have a black hat to hold over their heart,” Kemp said. “There will be something that will be shown on opening day. And I plan on being part of it.”
The Players Alliance is a group of more than 100 Black professional baseball players — headed by the likes of Vallejo, Calif., native CC Sabathia — whose mission is “to use our voice and platform to create change and equality in our game.”
Kemp’s activism goes well beyond a planned on-field protest. It began in the days following Floyd’s killing, when Kemp’s depression kept him bed-ridden. A three-hour long Zoom call with his family sparked the realization that, however helpless he felt, he had the platform to start a meaningful conversation. So, from his kitchen island, he tweeted: Who needs to talk?
Through online conversations, Kemp learned that the 1921 Tulsa Riot — a disaster that left 15,000 Black Americans homeless, 3,000 dead — was left out of most Oklahoma school curriculums. Kemp, who grew up in nearby Franklin, Tenn. had only heard about it a year prior. Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford reached out to Kemp, ensuring that the Tulsa Riot would be included in Oklahoma school education for 2021.
He learned about other Black peoples’ experience with racial injustice, police brutality and discrimination. He felt comfortable enough to share his own experience in what should have been an uneventful pull-over.
Kemp learned, most importantly, despite the hard headedness protest historically encounters, people were willing to change their minds.
“It starts with inner circle, when black people aren’t around, and you hear a micro aggression,” he said. “You might lose friends standing up for us. Just because you change your point of view, doesn’t make you a hypocrite.”
That included his eighth-grade teacher, who posted on Facebook disavowing the Black Lives Matter movement, claiming that “All Lives Matter.” One-on-one conversations, Kemp had learned, can change minds. He replied to her post, recommending she watch “13” on Netflix.
“I’ve seen your recent post and i can no longer stay silent, — I’ve appreciated you and your continued support, but your recent post disrespected and hurt me. Of course all lives matter, but black lives don’t matter equally.”
His teacher replied on Facebook the next day: she watched the movie and realized she had to educate herself on the movement.
“That was my teacher at some point,” Kemp said. “So it was nice to educate her.”
The online movement turned into a campaign. Kemp started the +1Effect — portions of the T-shirts and mask proceeds going to Gideon’s Army, a community organization whose mission it is to “dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.”
A symptom of MLB’s health and safety protocols, all that social distancing, is less opportunity for full-on team camaraderie. Less hanging out, talking, celebrating. At Tuesday’s practice, most of the A’s sported +1Effect T-shirts. Kemp wore a mask emblazoned with the logo. Manager Bob Melvin texted his support for his newest teammate.
“Here in California, we’re all about these initiatives and want to lead the way with it,” Melvin said. “I wanted to let a player that hasn’t been here that I absolutely support what he’s doing. Sometimes when you’re on a new team, you’re reluctant to get out in the forefront, but I wanted him to know I was proud of him for doing it and supported everything he does.”
In a time where human interaction is frowned upon, but protests couldn’t be more prescient, baseball players like Kemp — and those in the Players’ Alliance — are figuring out a way to have their message heard. Kemp learned that people, more than ever, are willing to listen.
“People are more open minded these days,” he said. “To be candid, I think when it comes from an athlete, it comes from a place of sincerity. A lot of people have respect for me, they start with love watching your career. We had a lot of positive conversations. There was no one who was mean, no one cussing me out. Everyone came from a genuine place.”
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