RENTON — On the day hundreds of mourners gathered in Minneapolis at a memorial service to honor George Floyd, Will Conroy led a conversation between several Seattle sports celebrities and local kids to talk about race, social justice and the need for change.
“My message isn’t a sad story and it’s not a sob story,” said Conroy, a University of Washington men’s basketball assistant who starred at Garfield High. “We all know what happened to George Floyd. We’re also disappointed and hurt, but how do we move forward? How do we educate ourselves? If we’re put in a situation with a police officer, how do we conduct ourselves? How do we speak a successful language that people understand and we don’t have to speak with busting out windows? How do we do that?
“I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you that I’m here for these kids.”
Thursday’s event drew hundreds – many wearing face masks and observing social-distancing guidelines due to the coronavirus pandemic – to Liberty Park in Renton to hear from a panel of speakers that included NBA standouts Jamal Crawford, Zach LaVine and Isaiah Thomas, Storm stars Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd and UW men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins.
Conroy felt the urge to organize the event after watching video of a white police officer kneeling for almost nine minutes on Mr. Floyd’s neck as he lay face down and handcuffed on the pavement, saying “I can’t breathe.”
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, 44, was charged last week with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, charges that were upgraded to second-degree murder Wednesday.
The other three officers standing by — J. Alexander Kueng, 27, Thomas Lane, 36, and Tou Thao, 34 — have now been charged with one count each of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.
Conroy, who is a 37-year-old Black man, felt the need to explain Mr. Floyd’s death to his two children, especially his 9-year-old son, Will Jr.
“My son is very cerebral and he understands everything,” Conroy said. “He knows right from wrong and what he saw was wrong. I never tried to teach color. I don’t want him to see color. But that day sadly, he saw color. He saw an action that happened out of color. I don’t know if that officer was racist. I don’t know that officer at all. But what I saw was a lynching. That’s what I saw.
“I try to teach him to treat everybody the same, as equals. Respect people. I try to teach him all those qualities, but when something like this happens, there’s a hard, harsh truth that I have to explain to him. And we’ve had that conversation and now he understands that some people just have hatred. But he has to know that not everyone is like that. That’s the first time we had the talk that unfortunately many Black people have to have with their kids.”
In essence, Conroy and several others who spoke Thursday tried to have a similar talk with the kids and their families who gathered under warm sunny skies.
Stewart expressed disappointment in the country that she’s represented with the gold-medal winning USA Basketball team at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“Obviously, I’m white (and) I cannot relate to the Black community,” said the 25-year-old Syracuse, N.Y. native. “I know that what I’m feeling, you guys are feeling a thousand times more. I’m going to just continue to do my best to create change. Create change from within because that’s where it first starts.
“I’m going to educate my family and my friends. I’m going to have the uncomfortable conversations. Do the things we’ve put off, to be honest. It’s really time to create a change that really lasts. Black lives are important. And Black lives matter obviously. … I stand with the Black community and continue to fight for equality.”
Chicago Bulls star Zach LaVine urged the crowd to make a change with their votes.
“As a community we can look to change things and be more involved,” said the 25-year-old former Bothell High standout. “Go vote. I haven’t been able to do that yet, but come this November I am going to because I know it’s going to change something.”
O’Dea High senior basketball standout Paolo Banchero, who recounted a frightening encounter with police officers, urged parents of color to “teach your kids how to act if they get pulled over.”
The rally, which featured a moment of silence for Mr. Floyd, also included Rainier Beach boys basketball coach Mike Bethea, who quoted Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and said: “Hate can not drive out hate, only love can do that.”
“There’s been a disconnect,” Bethea said, referencing the relationship between the Black community and local police. “That trust factor has been severed. We’ve got to find a way to reconnect with all of our communities and the police because they’re a part of our communities.”
Storm star Jewell Loyd urged folks to continue the dialogue about race and social justice until they see the change they want.
“Use your voice,” Loyd said. “Everyone here has one. Everyone here matters. Everyone here has a platform to use your voice. Don’t be afraid. We see you. We hear you.
“It doesn’t matter how young or old you are. We all have a voice and opportunity to spread love throughout the community and throughout the world.”
At the end, Conroy urged everyone to go home peacefully and not engage in the rioting and looting that’s followed several protests around the country.
“It turned out better than I expected,” Crawford said. “Look at this turnout. Just amazing. And I think we were able to connect with people at a time when they needed it.
“I’m so proud to be a part of this.”