Atlanta Hawks basketball player Etan Thomas refuses to be silent, especially when the state of Georgia seems poised to take a major step backward toward its dark past.
This week, Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal is expected to sign an immigration bill, HR 87, that promises nothing but racial profiling and broken lives. HR 87 grants state and local police the powers of federal immigration officials. That means local police can arrest people for the crime of not having their citizenship papers at the ready. It means immigrant communities will be hesitant to call the authorities if there is a fire, a crime, or an abusive family member in their midst. It means horrible echoes of the days of Jim Crow when Georgia’s black population needed written documentation if they wanted to travel the state without being thrown into prison.
Etan Thomas, who has a history of entering the fray and standing up against racism and the death penalty, wasn’t going to sit this one out.
“I can't believe that anyone would be in favor of racial profiling,” says Thomas. “This bill is very similar to the Arizona bill [last year’s infamous SB 1070] and authorizes law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of ‘certain criminal suspects’. So this means they can pull anyone over at anytime and their only crime could be minding their business. That goes against everything this country should stand for.”
Thomas is right. The bill doesn’t just echo Jim Crow, but has been pushed through on racist grounds. State Sen. Renee Unterman, in debating the bill, said that recent efforts at cooperation between federal immigration officials and local police was effective because "I see fewer foreigners driving around.” Don’t be caught “driving while brown” if Renee Untermann is in the area.
Thomas, amidst a successful playoff run by the Hawks, took the time to call for vocal and active resistance to these measures. “I applaud the thousands of people who gathered at the Georgia Capitol Thursday to protest this legislation,” he said. “Governor Nathan Deal has dreams of legislation where anyone who looks Hispanic are criminals. There simply should be no place for that in our society. What if after the Oklahoma City Bombing they passed legislation allowing police to detain and question every young white male? That would correctly be interpreted as a violation of their civil rights. And just as this example seems completely absurd, so does detaining every person who looks like they could be Hispanic to see if they are legal or illegal.”
Thomas’s voice should remind us of the way the NBA’s Phoenix Suns stood up to Arizona’s legislation by wearing jerseys that read Los Suns. Maybe Atlanta should wear uniforms in their series against the Hawks that read Los Hawks? It could be an act of solidarity with their proud Dominican All-Star teammate Al Horford. Or maybe, like in Arizona, activists should bring the fight to Major League Baseball?
Last year, there were protests outside twenty different Major League ballparks to oppose the staging of the All-Star game this summer in Arizona. They took place every time the Arizona Diamondbacks came to town, and they were all aimed at SB 1070. The Major Leagues currently rest on a foundation of Latino talent: 27.7 percent of major league players were born in Latin America as well as 50 percent of minor leaguers.
Georgia activists have taken note. I communicated with the organization Somos Georgia (We Are Georgia) and they have targeted the August 19-21st series between the Atlanta Braves and the Arizona Diamondbacks as a place where they are going to make their voices heard. If Atlanta Braves heroes like Alex Gonzalez and Martin Prado are in the wrong place at the wrong time – and not in uniform - they are in as much danger as a day laborer.
They said to me, “Somos Georgia/We Are Georgia understands there is no option but to boycott the state should the Governor sign HB 87 into law. People of conscience nationwide will not come to a state that legislates hate and bigotry - as the boycott of Arizona has demonstrated. Georgia will lose money, jobs, and we’ll lose our reputation as a good place to visit and do business. We will be rallying outside the Braves-Diamonback game in August to call attention to the immoral path both states have taken and to urge all people of conscience to oppose such hate."
The state of Georgia like the state of Arizona will pay a steep economic price for scapegoating and bigotry. But the wound will be self-inflicted. As Etan Thomas said to me, “This law has no place in a democracy. If they are looking for a way to correct the problem with illegal immigrants, punishing the masses can't be the solution. We are better than that.”
[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]