Layshia Clarendon thinks we’re just realizing the collective power in sports

Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images /

Layshia Clarendon talked with The Step Back about activism, the collective power in sports, defunding the police and what comes next.

The WNBA and its rich history of athlete-activism have been especially fashionable talking points this year, with sports operating in some ways as a vehicle for athletes to exercise their power. Over the years, the trait that separated the WNBA from the rest was that its players have consistently taken action as a collective, as a league of predominantly Black women standing in solidarity with each other and often taking positions outside of the sports-industrial complex mainstream.

In 2016, four players from the Minnesota Lynx were among the first athletes to come out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, predating Colin Kaepernick. The Milwaukee Bucks’ decision to strike for a game this year in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake falls into a lineage of collective action, to this point mostly forged by WNBA players.

“Athletes, particularly in their collective power, are just starting to scratch the surface of what we can really do,” New York Liberty player Layshia Clarendon tells The Step Back. “You’ve seen throughout history — Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick, John Carlos — you’ve seen individual acts, but now you’re starting to see what collectives can do.”

The WNBA has been supportive of its players’ activism — although this hasn’t always been the case — but it’s key that this movement is driven by players, resistant to corporate interests. Clarendon, as one of the players on the WNBA’s Social Justice Council, formed this year, gave a speech on live national TV before the season opener to dedicate the season to Breonna Taylor, consulting with Taylor’s mother in preparation for the speech. Clarendon is also one of the few athletes to call for abolishing the police. After the grand jury decision against indicting the officers involved in Taylor’s death, Clarendon tweeted, “This is why police need to be defunded and ultimately abolished!”

Defunding and abolishing the police are ideas that found unprecedented traction in the mainstream this year, becoming a central demand at protests across the United States and beyond. However, abolition remains a mostly foreign concept to sports, where athlete-activism has primarily manifested in calls to vote or for police reform. Even in the WNBA, with its reputation for more progressive thinking, that holds true. Clarendon is staking new ground within that context, with the end goal of educating others and building support for a society without police, without prisons and with resources funneled to more ameliorative public services in communities.

Recently, Clarendon spoke with The Step Back by phone about their support for abolishing the police, WNBA players’ collective action, what books they’re reading right now and more.

Before the season opener, you took to the court with Breanna Stewart to dedicate the WNBA season to justice for Breonna Taylor and other Black women who have been victims of racial and gendered violence. Can you tell me about what went into putting that statement together?

Specifically, the night before Stewie and I took to the court, I put that statement together. It was a little bit off the dome. I went over it with my wife and had some general thoughts about what I wanted to say, and then trust that in the moment, I would be able to speak to it.

With the way that TV works and not being sure how the season was exactly going to kick off until the night before, it was kind of a mad dash and a scramble to knowing, like, okay, you’re going to have a minute to talk on the court after you’ve warmed up… live on TV before you play a basketball game. It was a pretty wild experience to have to speak right before a game starts [laughs] when your adrenaline is kicked in and excited, and all of that stuff. So, Stewie and I had gone over it, what she was going to say, what I was going to say, where the camera would be and everything.

I also saw on Twitter that you spoke to Taylor’s mother Tamika Palmer while preparing that speech too, is that right? Can you share what you might’ve talked about in that conversation?

Working with Ms. Palmer to talk about Breonna Taylor, her daughter’s life, and how passionate she was, how full of life she was. Talking to her about not only the case and obviously fighting for justice and all of that side — we had her lawyer on the phone when we talked to her — but also, just celebrating Breonna’s life, and that’s something we wanted to try and do.

We met with the Mothers Network through the African-American Policy Forum and some of the other mothers of different women. So, specific to that statement, we wanted to make sure to mention [those women] — Sandra Bland, you know, it had recently been the five-year anniversary of her death. Making sure we mentioned transgender women and all of the different types of women that had been affected by police brutality, by state violence and had been murdered in various different ways, whether in police custody or murdered directly on the spot in police interactions.

So after the grand jury decision came down that none of the police officers would be charged for the murder of Breonna Taylor, you tweeted, “This is why police need to be defunded and ultimately abolished!” How did you come to that position of supporting police abolition?

Reading, education. I follow a lot of activists and organizers such as Alicia Garza and Raquel Willis. I think it’s really education and understanding what defunding the police is because it’s become the latest polarizing issue where we’re arguing about semantics more than the heart of the issue. People get distracted by that because they don’t want to deal with the racism and the real reason behind why folks want police [defunded].

For me, it just starts all with education. I had no clue how much funding goes to police forces. When you start to understand the layers and layers and layers, because so much of it is specific to this country, you understand why the police are so funded and why we’re so militaristic and how we need criminals in order to fill the prisons that we build. You can understand the big picture, the big web of it all.

It’s a no-brainer to me, to want to defund the police and ultimately abolish the police because I really do want to repair this inequality for all. I want restorative justice. I want there to be something where, like, someone doesn’t get thrown into a prison cell, and we have the worst prisons in this country, too. It’s just a full picture for me, and a lot of it comes through my reading.

I actually did see that you post a lot about the books that you’re reading to your Instagram. What are you reading right now? Not necessarily just in relation to abolition, but more broadly as well.

Ooh, what did I just finish? All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, and that was a book about masculinity. I do try and read some other different fiction books that are more, turn your brain off, have fun and read a story, but I do read a lot of [non-fiction] books, like The New Jim Crow, too. This book, All Boys Aren’t Blue, is a memoir about George M. Johnson, who is this awesome gay guy, he’s flamboyant, and [it’s about] how he navigated society as a young adult. I just finished that book, it was really good, and I’m learning a lot more about gender.

You got at this earlier too, but it feels like defunding and abolition is this idea that got a lot of traction in the mainstream this year, although, me personally, I’m not sure that I’ve heard many other athletes express support for that idea other than you.

Have you come across any other players in the WNBA or other athletes in general who have expressed support for abolition? Whether that’s in public or privately.

I know Megan Rapinoe, we’ve had some of those conversations. I’m trying to think off the top of my head, but I haven’t seen a ton of athletes publicly talking about it. I know some internally in the WNBA do while some are more for reform, so you do get a wide variety of people. I think Megan Rapinoe has been the other most active athlete I’ve seen that’s unabashedly unafraid to share that stuff, that police in their current state shouldn’t exist.

Being in a bubble with other WNBA players this season, was that helpful as far as being able to circulate specific ideas?

We were able to physically meet, because we’ve never all been in the same city like that ever in the history of the WNBA, all 12 teams being in one location like that. Obviously, sometimes you had the COVID regulations when we first got there, like how we could or couldn’t interact.

The other thing that was really cool was because we knew our schedule was so set, that made it a little bit easier to get folks to give their free time. Normally, when you’re in the season, when I’m not at practice, people could be hanging out with their family or doing an array of different things, but because we were all in the bubble and there was only so much to do, we had a much higher participation for stuff because it was like, well, yeah, I’m not doing nothing but just sitting in my hotel room. I think we got a lot more people on our calls giving really good engagement, and that gives us the opportunity to have more conversations with people for our Social Justice Council.

How important is it that the players are doing this together, taking action as a collective?

It’s huge. There’s definitely strength in numbers, and the fact that this is player-led is very grassroots. It’s bigger than our specific organization, or maybe what an individual team or the league is willing to stand for. At the end of the day, the league is a corporation and so sometimes you have those hoops to jump through, although the league has been really supportive. When it’s player-led, it’s cool because players can give their opinion. I can talk about defunding the police because I’m Layshia Clarendon and that’s my personal view.

The players have really had the opportunity to lead this year, and to do it in a way where the women stick together. I’ve been talking about this a lot in the last year because we get the bad rep that we’re catty, we’re petty and women are scrapping and clawing and don’t work together.

What we’ve shown is the solidarity we’ve been able to have across all teams, from [the Washington Mystics and Atlanta Dream] not playing [after the shooting of Jacob Blake] and everybody having their backs to the collective bargaining agreement back in February to us all agreeing to dedicate the season to Breonna Taylor and wear her name on our backs. That’s really the strength of our league. We do things collectively and we have the ability to organize very quickly.

In general, you being a WNBA player with the platform that you have, how do you want to continue pushing for abolition or building that broader support for those ideas?

Educating people. It all has to start with education, especially with what you see in our current climate. [laughs] … Not everyone has been taught certain ideals or has been given factual information on a daily basis. It’s just a big place to start, and getting folks to understand, hey, did you know 50 percent of the budget in your community goes to policing, and that’s why your YMCA has no resources, or that’s why your school is low on funding, or whatever the case may be with your community, like not enough rehab facilities by you.

It’s getting folks to understand the heart of the issue behind it, and less of a Blue Lives Matter [against] Black Lives Matter polarizing issue. I think at the end of the day, a lot of folks in communities want their neighborhood to be safe, they want safe schools, they want good grocery stores around them. I think a lot of people do want similar things, but unfortunately with politics, the branding and the ideas behind things end up getting caught in the weave of stuff.

Then, in other sports leagues, even leagues across the world, we’re seeing a lot of these unprecedented acts of protest, and a lot of powerful symbolism. How do you feel about that broader movement?

It’s awesome. I recently got reached out to by, I think it was a French soccer league. Abby Wambach actually connected me with them. They were wanting to do some activism and they wanted to make sure that they were centering the #SayHerName movement, so I connected them with the African-American Policy Forum and with the masks that they sell specifically because they wanted the proceeds to go back to the actual organizations that were doing the work.

The fact that what we’ve done in the WNBA is bridging the gap across global communities and what we see in the larger sports community, it’s huge, because racism is global. We talk about it in the States because that’s where we live, that’s where our league is and that’s what affects us the most, but these issues aren’t unique to us in any sense.

Athletes, particularly in their collective power, are just starting to scratch the surface of what we can really do — seeing the impact that we made this season, seeing the impact of the NBA shutting down and not playing. You’ve never really seen athletes endorse a candidate like we did this year with Reverend [Raphael] Warnock [for the US Senate seat currently held by Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler]. You’ve seen throughout history — Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick, John Carlos — you’ve seen individual acts, but now you’re starting to see what collectives can do. That’s what’s really scary, and in a good way because the sky is the limit with the power that athletes have.

Going back to books, just because I’m a huge nerd about that, what were the most influential readings for you or books for you on abolition, or are there any that you would recommend?

Ooh, I’ve read a lot of articles. I’ve read more articles on abolition than actual books, but Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis is a really good one. Obviously, The New Jim Crow, because you have to understand the industrial system of it all and how that affects it, so that’s a really good one. Then I’ve read some really good articles that break down what policing is, what the folks have done in Seattle specifically around the police state.

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