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Why I raised my fist: JT Brown

Editor’s note: NHL players have spoken out against racism and social injustice since the death of George Floyd, a black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. he raised his fist during the national anthem to draw attention to the same issues. With calls for social justice and the fight against racism at the center of his return to the NHL, Brown wrote a special essay for the League about his decision to raise a fist:

On October 7, 2017, I had a choice. I could shut down and play hockey or do something so loud that the whole hockey community could hear me. Nothing will ever happen if we all keep our heads and mouths shut. So, during the national anthem in Sunrise, Florida, I raised my fist to protest police brutality and racism. The same fist that raised arenas to their feet as I exchanged blows with outspoken opponents. The same fist that shattered from blocking a shot during the Stanley Cup playoffs. The same fist that gave countless blows to black and Hispanic children in the community while teaching them how to play hockey. I have always sacrificed for my team, for the fans, for my community. In 201

7, I had the opportunity to sacrifice for something bigger than hockey and I knew I had to do it.

While everyone was focused on taking the team out of the camp or preparing for the start of the season, the media asked me if I would protest during the national anthem. I already felt the pressure that comes with a contract year and now I had to decide if I was ready to do something uncomfortable and uncharacteristic of my sport. I’m a non-lineup who has enough grit to stick around the fourth line. I knew I was replaceable. I knew that protesting could make the contract for next season even more difficult. My family and I were prepared to end my NHL career. I had decided that I was pleased to be uncomfortable.

Hockey is played mainly by wealthy white men and in accordance with the team mentality, which is rooted from a young age. Throughout my professional career, I was one of the 30 somewhat black hockey players in the League. For most of my hockey career, I was the only black or colored person on my team. It’s an experience that can make you feel like a black man. An experience that makes you supernatural for your Blackness, questioning whether you are behaving too black or too white. Understanding where and how you fit in can be lonely, and that essentially shapes you as a person. I’ll be honest, most of the time we’re all just teammates. We joke, play video games, play cards and bet on the football game. Then there are times when I’m the only player asked by the security arena for my credentials, when I’m just trying to get to my locker room. Or when I’m asked by the hotel security to leave the hockey players alone and leave the hotel lobby when I’m just waiting with my teammates for our bus. Let’s not forget the classic line that every Black hockey player knows all too well, “go play basketball,” which I heard during a hockey game at the highest level from an opposing player. I’ve worked hard all my life to prove that I belong in the NHL, and when I did, I kept reminding myself that I was black, playing white sports.

Before raising my fist during the national anthem, I spoke with the team owner, general manager, coach and teammates. I told them that I intended to raise a fist in solidarity during the national anthem as a symbolic protest against police brutality and racism. They were welcome to come and talk to me if they wanted to better understand my intentions. When I talked to my coach about my plans to protest, I told him about the time she was shooting at my head. I usually tell the story of this when I was called n-word during a youth hockey game, and the coach told me that our team would leave the game if it didn’t kick out the kid who said it. The refusal would not kick the kid out, so my teammates and the coach stayed with me until we left the game. These are the stories that people love to hear because they offer resolution and a sense of community. I don’t usually talk about it when I was at a home party in high school, and some kids from school pulled out a rifle and aimed it at my head while calling me n-word. People don’t like these stories because they reveal truths that they choose to ignore. These are the things that shaped me as a man. These are the things that all led me to raise my fist in the air.

Video: Predators and stars stand hand in hand for anthems

My father and I talked at length about how this decision could affect my career, my family, and my livelihood. I relied on him for advice because of his unique experience as not only a former National Football League player, but also after his career after football as a probation officer in Ramsey County and a juvenile correction officer. I always went to my father for advice on life and career. While he feared for me and the consequences I would face, he knew it was something I had to do, and he fully supported me.

I decided to continue with a fist after a long heart with a friend who is a retired U.S. Air Force (E-7) highway sergeant who serves during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. We talked about how I should protest, but I also wanted to mean those who serve and serve our country. Given the logistics of where we stand during the anthem, I couldn’t take a knee. I felt that a raised fist best represented my intentions, as it symbolized solidarity, support, strength, and even resistance.

My first protest was during a pre-season hockey game and went unnoticed. On October 7, 2017, however, I was again in the lineup for the regular season. This protest went viral almost immediately. In the weeks after the game, I had a personal meeting with the management and then a meeting at the home of the team owner. They both wanted to know what I needed and how they could help me achieve what I was trying to do. It was a difficult question because I didn’t know how to solve racism in America and I still don’t. Even before I protested, I knew I might not be able to make a national impact, but I hoped it would facilitate a positive impact in Tampa.

My team was also able to support my initiatives with resources, provided I could make changes that I thought could benefit my community. The action plan included two things. The first worked with the Tampa Police Department. I developed a relationship with the police chief, I went horseback riding, and some of my teammates and I even went through police training. The second, which unfortunately never materialized because I ended up playing in Anaheim, was a program that would bring together police and community children to watch Lightning games. I received many factions from the black community for these actions. I realized how problematic it was to integrate into a situation where the story shifted from police brutality to using my actions for something that some see as pro-police rhetoric. As black athletes, this year we were automatically placed in a unique position. We were the only athletes who kept asking us if we would protest. This also put us in a difficult place. We were forced to choose a country. Am I black or am I a hockey player? We were all blamed if we did, and angry if we didn’t.

Video: Penguins, leaflets unite for social justice

I asked my wife not to be on social media before this pre-season game. I knew it would be ugly. I want to make sure that I also mention all the incredible support and love I received after my protest. Unfortunately, not everyone understood. I received death threats; people told me they hoped I had an injury at the end of my career; people even called my daughter the baby the n-word. To this day, when I speak out against racism, there is someone on my Twitter who mentions that he wants to hang me or call me the n-word. The deviation strengthened my belief that I had done the right thing. I know the hockey community, and the Black community in particular, hears me acknowledge their pain and realizes that I have taken an oath in this game to always fight for equality.

Before I raised my fist, I never considered myself an activist. I’ve always focused on being a professional hockey player and finding out how I can stay in the NHL. That changed in June 2017, when a Falcon Heights, Minnesota police officer who killed Filando Castilla in 2016 was acquitted of murder in court. Castile was shot and killed while sitting in his car in front of his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter. The viral video of this little girl comforting her mother with handcuffs while the two were placed in the back of a cop’s car broke me. At that time, I had a daughter, Lily, and I realized that I had a responsibility to fight for a better future for her and the other black children.

Fast forward to 2020, when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. For the first time, I saw a look at a League made up of mostly wealthy white men who spoke out against problems that had once been ignored. He promised to see activism in the NHL progress. The urgency for social change does not stop, as the roar of protests fades and disappears from our deadlines. So whether you use your hands to donate, volunteer, hold signs while marching in protest, voting online or raising a fist in solidarity, we all have a responsibility to fight for equality. History cannot be repeated.

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