An open letter to Jonathan Butler and the Football Players at Mizzou
November 11, 2015 at 2:00 am
To Jonathan Butler:
Your courage, your sacrifice, was not in vain. You knew that your body was the only thing you had to resist, and you used it in the best way you knew how. You knew your very flesh, drained of nutrients, would be the only way that people would be made aware. You exposed the violence of American racism through the public neglect of your own health. But in doing so, you exposed that the neglect wasn’t of your making. It was the direct result of a university and a country hell-bent on trapping, securing, and disciplining your body to operate the way they wanted it to. You said “no” to this system, and in so doing, inspired others. For that, I not only applaud you, I salute you.
I don’t salute you for the reasons others might, however. For others might call your act nonviolent, might paint you as one of the patron saints in the mural of black respectability politics. They might situate you in the tradition of telling black people that the only way they can find justice is by taking the sins of others on themselves. They might compare your strike to Gandhi’s, might tell you that what you did was in the “spirit” of those who came before you. They would be wrong. What you did wasn’t nonviolent. It may not have involved guns, fists, or other weapons, but it was, nonetheless, violent.
It was violent because your life was put on the line. And the University tested the limits of your existence. It was violent because, even in the president’s resignation, your health wasn’t the concern (despite minor mentions of your name). I am convinced that the University — embodied by Tim Wolfe in this instance — would’ve let you die had it not been in their best public and economic interests. It was violent because the only person who suffered physical harm as a result of your actions was you. Wolfe may no longer receive a paycheck from the University, but he isn’t too much worse the wear for having resigned.
Your actions were violent, not because you harmed anyone — not even yourself. No, your actions were violent because they exposed the depths to which an institution will sink to preserve its name. You committed no crime, assaulted no person. And yet, the amount of damage done to your body exposed the amount of havoc wreaked on black bodies on a daily basis. Your sacrifice was a revelation. It wasn’t cathartic; although I am happy that some changes were made, I fear that the powerful statement you made through your body will be limited to the university. Your hunger wasn’t only the result of a racist institution; it was an indictment on the institutional, socio-cultural, and socio-economic racism that founded and fuels this country.
You called America to the carpet and it responded with breadcrumbs. But I nonetheless applaud you. I think you are amazing. I am truly inspired by your actions. I hope you know this. In you, in your hunger strike, I saw a glimpse of the possibility of change. I saw, in you, the glimmer of reasonable hope that maybe, some day, our world will be different. And for that, I thank you. And I love you, even though we’ve never met, and probably never will.
To the football players at the University of Missouri:
I applaud you. I am happy for you. I thank you for your courage, your resistance, and your sacrifice.
For some of you, potential employment through the NFL was put on the line by your act. To not play — to refuse the possibility of being scouted by potential employers and to risk what may have been your livelihood — is courageous. But, while I applaud you, each and every one of you for what you did, I am also sad for you. I am sure that you know this, but the reason why Wolfe resigned wasn’t to heal race relations on your campus. It was because your bodies are property of the university — property rendered defunct by the non-action of a president. It was the value of your bodies to stakeholders — at least $1 mill., by some estimates — that rang clear to Wolfe and to the Mizzou administration.
Your act of solidarity and courage, your embodied expression of resistance, was met with swift action not because each of you mattered as human beings who laugh, cry, dance, run, play and learn, but because your resistance signaled the loss of income. Wolfe’s resignation wasn’t a genuine plea for healing; it was the result of a cost-benefit analysis that had your bodies in the crosshairs. I want to be clear: what you did was powerful. What each of you did, in your demands and in your public statements, was something that made my heart proud. I applaud you, each of you, for knowing that your boycott would do such economic damage as to make change. But the fact that money is what talked—and not the lives of you, handsome, strong, bold, and complex young men—troubles me. It means that we, as a society, have done you and other college athletes a tremendous disservice. We’ve trotted you out as $40 million slaves, pillaged your bodies for their entertainment benefit, and gave you little in return. We risked—and continue to risk—your health and well-being for our own voyeuristic benefit. And it absolutely sucks that the only way you could bring attention to beauty and humanity of your own lives as black men was by denying the university access to your bodies.
This isn’t meant to discourage you. I hope it emboldens you, encourages you to continue down the path of resistance. I only wish the best for each of you, that you would all go on to have great lives in whatever fields you may choose. I hope that each of you finds love and happiness in the lives you craft for yourselves. But I also hope that, through your actions, you have become aware of how little America cares about you as people. Your lives matter, but to some they only matters to a spreadsheet, as an asset to some company or institution. I know each of you is so much more than a football player. But I also know that what people see when they see you are dollar signs because of your physical and mental talents. I yearn for the day that you all will be seen for who and what you are — complex beings deserving of love irrespective of your abilities. And what saddens me is that I don’t know when or if this day will come.
All the best,
Informed Black Man
Biko is a doctoral student in religious studies and a blogger for the Alibi X Nation at www.alibix.co/blog/. He reads and writes on race, religion, politics and popular culture.