Recently, 14-year NBA veteran Caron Butler was a guest on The HoopsHype Podcast. Butler is on the Board of Directors for the National Basketball Retired Players’ Association and for the Vera Institute of Justice. He talked about racial injustice, attending protests, what people can do to help and more. Listen to the conversation above or read a transcribed version below.
You wrote an excellent piece for The Players’ Tribune about your experiences with law enforcement growing up in Wisconsin. You were arrested more than 15 times and almost every interaction with the police was negative. Sometimes, they’d arrest you just because your pants were sagging. When you see George Floyd and others who were murdered by cops, do you think, “That could have been me?”
Caron Butler: Absolutely, and it’s deflating. When you look at where we’re at in society, there are a couple of reasons why this is a huge deal. Give a huge credit to Stephen Jackson and his relationship with George Floyd, his twin, because he spoke up. He spoke up numerous times on a large platform, and he had access to media and friends that can spread word of this inequality of justice immediately. Another thing is when you look at the platforms that we’ve been given, successful as we are (in some form of success), we try to inspire as much as possible, but it’s definitely up to us to move the needle on social injustices (and injustice in this country as a whole) and raise awareness on equality and educate and inform as much as possible. I’ve been doing this for years, you know, for my entire life – since I’ve been through the adversity that I had to overcome – and this is no different for me now. I’m just happy that we have young people from all walks of life that are unified and making sure that awareness is happening and there’s change.
You have attended multiple protests in California, including one with your 20-year-old son, Caron Jr. You were actually at a protest right before we started chatting. How many people were there and what was the energy like?
CB: It was thousands out there. And the reason why it was so impactful, as we touched on, was that it was people from all walks of life. It was young people, old people, multiple generations at this rally next to each other and around each other for the good. Now, imagine this: Mental Health Awareness Month just passed in May and there’s depression and social anxiety and all these things that the world has been dealing with [plus everything] from an economic standpoint – unemployment is 40-million-plus – and still people are putting that aside to sacrifice and say, “You know what? It is so important that we get out here and march together and rally around each other for justice and equality for all people, especially black people in America.” Black history has always been swept under the rug. And what happens when you continue to sweep history under the rug? Trauma occurs. And when trauma continues to go unaddressed, that’s a huge issue.
What do I mean by that, Alex? When you think about the old Jim Crow laws and the new Jim Crow laws, when you think about slavery, when you think about mass incarceration, when you think about the civil rights movement… This is how we got here, because a lot of people don’t understand how we got here. This is how we got here. Think about all of the inequality that hasn’t been captured on film. Emmett Till, Medgar Evers and so many others. Then, all of a sudden, now we’re at a place where [we’re saying], “Look at this! Look, America! This is what we’re dealing with!” And now we ask you, as a society and as elected officials, to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. Make an example out of these individuals that did this to human beings and expedite the justice process. Because this justice has not been had for far too long.
I’ve heard many stories of black fathers sitting down with their sons and teaching them about police brutality and walking them through exactly what to do if they get pulled over. Did you have those conversations with your son? And, if so, at what age did you start having those chats?
CB: It’s not just black men; it’s black women and it’s our culture as a whole. I’ve had that conversation with my son, when he was old enough to understand, “I’m different.” I have four daughters and one son and because they had the luxury of attending prestigious schools – private schools – they immediately understood because they were in classrooms where no one else looked like them or there was only one or two [others] in the entire school, possibly. I always had that lesson and the resource of informing them. Because when you look at our educational system, it is fractured as well and that’s something that’s going to have to be addressed. You don’t get taught American history in the right way when you go to school. That’s why a lot of people are running around dumbfounded on where we are at today. Because black history isn’t talked about as much. When February rolls around, you immediately say, “Oh, this Black History Month,” and we celebrate our great leader in Dr. Martin Luther King and people may talk about Langston Hughes, Medgar, Evers, Malcolm X, something like that and then that’s it. But how did they become great leaders? We don’t talk about that history.
We continue to celebrate history that wasn’t real – Christopher Columbus and things like that – but we don’t talk about the history of slavery. We don’t talk about how black Americans built this country. We don’t talk about the history of black Wall Street in Tulsa and what happened – how it was burned down and how people were lynched. Because it’s uncomfortable to have those conversations in schools and educators are uncomfortable [or] because they don’t even know the history. Some of them are like, “I didn’t know that!” But that’s important because it’s part of American history; you cannot write off 400-plus years of history like that. So, I’ve always sat down with my children, me and my wife, and over-informed them because our family comes from Columbus, Mississippi – they grew up in the cotton fields – and we migrated north to a predominantly white state. And we had to integrate ourselves into that. My family always shared those stories with me, so it was important for me to share those stories with my kids. Also, being out there with my legacy, my 20-year-old son, out there marching, that was everything. It was a feeling like no other because that is a moment that he will never forget. The picture was captured by my daughter. She’ll never forget it. And that image, I know that it lives on The Players’ Tribune [forever] and it kind of went viral. He’ll see that and remember that moment for the rest of his life and know why we were there and that we really had our hands in on change.
By my count, over 40 players participated in protests in the last week. How proud are you of your fellow NBA players for stepping up and emerging as leaders during this time?
CB: Well, I’m super proud of them for doing something. That was my message to everyone in The Players’ Tribune; people from all walks of life, not just the NBA, everybody should be trying to do something. It’s not a black thing, it’s an everybody thing because it is a problem. And if you don’t think there’s a problem, you’re the problem! There’s a problem; you cannot deny that racism in America is at an all-time high right now. You can’t say it doesn’t exist. That would be denying it to the fullest, and it is a problem. So, I’m proud of all these guys for getting out here and fighting the good fight. This was something that I’ve been in the midst of doing my entire active career as a basketball player and now, serving on the board of the Vera Institute, I’m doing more than ever now. We go into the system – we go into the correctional systems – and all we talk about is social injustice. That’s been a target for me and something that’s been close to my heart, that I make sure I try to change the system as much as possible.
In your article, you wrote that “anyone without something to say by now is part of the problem,” and that you’re sick of people staying quiet and saying, “I don’t know what to say.” We saw 29 of 30 NBA teams show their support either with a statement or by having their coach speak out. The only team that hasn’t said anything publicly is the New York Knicks. A memo from James Dolan circulated where he tried to explain their silence, but dozens of employees are reportedly furious and I’d imagine the players are upset. What are your thoughts on the Knicks’ silence? If you were playing for the Knicks, how would you feel?
CB: I don’t even know… It’s like every opportunity or chance that Mr. Dolan gets a chance to do something right, it’s almost like he’s pivoting in the space to go out of his way to do the opposite. And that probably works in the business space, where you disturb the market. But this is not a business thing. This is a humane thing, and I think that he made a bad decision not speaking up on it. And I don’t know what he does privately or anything like that, but you should take a stance on justice and on what’s right and wrong. I think that, at the end of the day, your legacy is extremely important. I’ve never seen a U-Haul truck attached to a hearse or anything like that, so people remember you from your good deeds and what you did for mankind. To say nothing in one of the biggest moments, I think, in our lifetime – that we’ve been able to experience and all rally around and have a hand in and be a part of – to be absent in that moment? That tells you a lot. And I know that a lot of players are like, “How can I go run through a brick wall for this organization when I understand and know that my rights probably don’t really matter to this individual?” This is eye-opening for a lot of people. This is eye-opening for a lot of people who are on social media that have friends from different walks of life that didn’t stand in solidarity and say anything. It’s going to be different going forward. If you did not stand on the side of [what’s] right and of justice, you will be looked at differently. And that just lets the world know that you have no substance to you.
You have a unique perspective here because you’ve been arrested numerous times and had negative experiences, but you’ve also been involved with “Champions of Change Law Enforcement and Youth” and you’re close with some cops (like Rick Geller, who saved your life). Some people are saying defund the police and Minneapolis is looking into dismantling their police department. Others are saying we need to improve the training and make it tougher to become a cop. What would you like to see happen?
CB: Yeah, well, I think, first and foremost, there are certain jobs that can’t afford bad apples. When you’re a professional, we’re professionals for a reason because we’re the best at our jobs. So, if you throw a basketball to a shooter, they’re a professional shooter and that means eight or nine times out of 10, they’re going to hit their mark. You’re a sniper, you’re a professional shooter. Certain jobs just can’t afford to have bad apples; they really can’t. And once you seek out those bad apples [through] conversations and perspectives, they should not be tossed into an environment or community in which they have no insider understanding. I think with policing, that’s where a lot of problems lie. I talked to a lot of people across the nation and here’s the problem: You’re patrolling areas that you’re not from and that you have no connection to, so you have no relationships with community leaders or people in the community. You don’t know. You’re scared from the jump when you’re patrolling this area that you’re not familiar with and then when something happens, you immediately overreact instead of following protocol.
That’s what usually happens, and that’s why you have so many drastic things happening across the board – overkill situations where it’s overreacting from the law enforcement side. But then you have good officers as well that understand [the community] and know how to maintain their emotions. Like Rick Geller did in my situation by not charging me. Usually in a situation like that, where you’re in a drug raid and you’re a black man and they found drugs, you’re gonna go to jail. Geller was like, “I know these drugs aren’t his. Why would I put this case on this kid just because I can?” That’s the judgment side that I’m talking about, and that’s because he patrolled that community his entire career. He understands the impact of drug-infested neighborhoods. Also, I think that there should be a central location where the district attorney for the state isn’t the one trying these officers because they’re all under the same roof. If I had to try someone that I knew personally, [I’d be biased]. That’s the reason why jury duty is so important. If you have a relationship with someone who’s being tried in the case, you cannot serve as a juror because you know the person. Same thing with a district attorney! A district attorney or prosecutor in the state case can’t prosecute law enforcement the same way they would if it was someone they didn’t know. There’s a relationship there. It’s like doing negotiations against yourself, so I think there has to be a central location where law enforcement are tried if and when things happen. Because, look, there will be other instances where things will happen and there will be excessive use of force. When things like that happen, they need to be tried and it needs to be expedited.
As you wrote in your article, so many media outlets and brands that were silent in the past are now showing their support for Black Lives Matter. Do you think this is a turning point or is there some fear that those organizations are just saying something because they feel like they have to?
CB: I think it’s a combination of two things. I think it is a situation where they’re forced to say yes or no. And you can’t be politically correct, which I stated in the article. So, I think a lot of people are saying, “You know what? We all can universally agree that this was a murder that we witnessed and this is wrong. So, yes, this is important that I say that this is my position.” Now, it’s important that it doesn’t stop there. The conversations don’t stop [this], it’s the resources and these organizations and high-net-worth individuals have access to that can help. It’s important that they continue to give back to initiatives in the black and brown community, specifically, because what’s lacking is financial support.
I know that Mayor [Eric] Garcetti here in the state of California has pulled like $150 million to $160 million of resources from other spaces to make sure that they specifically go back into the black and brown communities to uplift and bring things that don’t send individuals down that path of destruction anymore and try to break the narrative. I think that people in those positions need to continue to try to be a resource for communities that are disenfranchised. They need to be educated, they need to be informed more, and they need to give back in a major way or in whatever way that they can because it is needed now more than ever. And we are in a position where we have large platforms and it’s important that we understand that and let people know how exactly we feel. We have to let the people who are scared to let people know what they’re thinking that it’s okay to speak up and speak out and speak loud.
For people who want to do more than just post on social media, what can they do to help?
CB: Well, look, there are a lot of platforms that you can get involved with. For myself, I represent and am on the board at the Vera Institute, as I touched on, and we address mass incarceration amongst other things. But the way that you can really help, genuinely help, is understanding the history of America, understanding the history and the plight of the black culture in America. And then figure out specifically where your energy and your efforts need to go. I don’t know if you want to attack social justice, I don’t know if you want to bring more awareness, but all of those things are needed and there are specific sites and locations that you can go to to educate yourself. It’s all over, whether it’s the NAACP platform or the National Urban League or the American Civil Rights Liberty Union or the Bail Project or BlackLivesMatter.com or the Minnesota Freedom Fund or the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or the National Bail Fund Network. There are all types of sites and locations that support anti-racist organizations. There are a lot of platforms that you can help. And it doesn’t have to just be financial, it can just be from an education standpoint. They can send you information that you were unaware of. I’m still being informed. There are things that I didn’t know about my people and I’m learning more and more, and I’m informing and educating others as much as I possibly can and using my platform to do that. So, if I’m doing that, people from other walks of life should definitely educate up on the culture and find out ways that they can assist because this is a “we” thing. This isn’t just a black culture thing, this is a “we” thing. Everybody has to be involved in the conversation to drive real change.