Local African American sports figures continue to process the nation's unrest
History is about foreshadowing at times, even if unwittingly so. We are learning it and living it again.
In 1967, for example, the movie "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" explored the vagaries of black and white cultures when Spencer Tracy — a self-proclaimed, open-minded liberal — had a hard time processing that his daughter was bringing a black man (Sidney Poitier) to dinner.
Twelve years prior, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said the following words about a week after Rosa Parks stayed seated on the bus:
"And certainly, certainly, this is the glory of America, with all of its faults. This is the glory of our democracy. If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a Communistic nation we couldn't do this. If we were dropped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime we couldn't do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right."
And this is where we are. We have a hard time processing. We are protesting. We, as a nation, are coming face to face with our principles. Some don't like what they see. Many others yearn for change.
Below, you are about to read the observations of four local African American sports figures — as told to myself and colleagues Vickie Fulkerson, Ned Griffen and Gavin Keefe — and how they're processing the country's unrest:
Few others in this region understand the complexities of the black and white cultures better than Davonta Valentine, an African American young man who is the adopted child of two white parents, Jerry and Susan Picardi of Waterford.
Valentine, a two-sport athlete at Waterford High who graduated from Salve Regina University, was the biological child of two African-American parents in New Haven. He was 11 and in foster care at the Waterford Country School when Sue Picardi, a liaison between the Waterford school system and the Country School's Safe Home Project, which serves children who have been removed from home for the first time, met him.
It wasn't long until Valentine was the couple's fourth child.
Valentine was among the most popular students at Waterford. He was the president of the student council, two-time homecoming king and starter on the football and basketball teams.
"This week hasn't been easy," Valentine said. "Social media is a killer. You want to jump in. But I haven't written a thing. I try to look at everybody's views. My mom called me (the Picardis live in Florida now) and asked me about it. I agree with the protesting. But the good protesting. The violent ones, I just don't see how that helps. I'm torn because I believe all lives matter. But at this time of need, I believe in Black Lives Matter. Some people don't get that."
Valentine, despite of his notoriety through athletics, said he's been pulled over in his car for no reason before, other than because of his skin color.
"Look, I'm not perfect. Neither are the cops," Valentine said. "I got pulled over in Groton, where there are mostly white cops. It was the second time. I was told 'there's something wrong with your insurance.' There wasn't. When I got to the New London courthouse, I ran into a woman who worked there. She's a family friend. She said, "They pulled you over because you're black, Davonta.' I said, 'it has to be.'
"It's really hard," Valentine said. "I try not to judge anybody. My brother-in-law is a police officer in Waterford. Believe me, I see both sides."
One word that Jayden Burns has kept coming back to in recent days is "heartbreaking."
"It's 2020 and we're still dealing with racism and prejudice," Burns said. "We actually had a family discussion about all that. It's sad we have to talk about it. Who you're going to be around. How you're going to act. All over something we can't control: the color of our skin."
But for Burns, a junior at New London High School who has competed in volleyball, basketball, track and cheerleading, there is also another message she has gleaned from seeing "Black Lives Matter" protests, some in communities which aren't predominantly black.
It's a message of hope.
"It makes me proud to think that someone would do that for us," Burns said. "All of this protesting kind of gives me hope. It makes me kind of sad because I don't know what's going to happen in the future, whether people can get over racism.
"I have hope that at least some things will change. It gives me hope. I heard the police officer (that was responsible for the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis) got charged with second-degree murder, so I'm staying educated about all that.
"I'm hoping that a lot will change."
Burns, whose father Johnny is New London's football coach, has been vocal on Twitter and donates when she can to causes surrounding the protests. She was planning to attend Saturday's scheduled "We're fed up! Black Lives Matter" protest in downtown New London.
"If you can't see my blackness then you don't see me!" Burns wrote recently on Twitter.
"I see a whole bunch of videos of everyone; all 50 states in the country have participated in protesting," she said. "We have to make sure our voices are being heard. I think it's a pretty good response to how we're being treated.
"People aren't going to stand up for you sometimes. ... It's definitely heartbreaking to have to think about how to change the world, that we're still having to deal with this."
— Vickie Fulkerson
"The Purge" movie franchise chronicles a dystopian America in which a totalitarian government, voted into power after an economic crash, passes into law a national holiday.
The holiday is named "Purge Night", a 12-hour period in which Americans may "purge" all their negativity via any crime, including murder, except against government officials.
Dave Cornish, Ledyard High School's boys' basketball coach, was unfamiliar with those movies until he saw one last summer.
"I'm thinking to myself, 'this is The Purge,'" Cornish said about recent events in America.
"I can't believe I would live to see a day like this where there is absolutely almost no control whatsoever between the police, law, the civilians."
Cornish deferred talking about his own experiences about being black in America, but has talked to his players of color about how to carry themselves.
"I've tried to teach my players, my minority players, some of the black kids. ... I've told them there is a difference, and this is what you have to do," Cornish said. "You have to do certain things when you get around certain people, so they don't try to stereotype you as much. I mean, it's going to happen, but try to curb it as much as you can."
Cornish is good friends with police officers and understands the difficulties they face. He feels that there's more than can be done within departments that would help relations between the police and the public they serve.
"My personal belief is people, like the police, just have a little more training towards situations with people of color because a lot of them fear people of color, and that's I think where it stems from," he said. "That they're so quick to put handcuffs on and things of that nature and not talk about it because of the fear factor. I think if they have more training and are put in different situations during training (it would help). ... build relationships with the civilians, with the public."
"I don't like to see any of this stuff. It's sad that it's come to this point. And hopefully, like I said, there'll be some sort of change. Not a whole lot, I don't think, is going to happen, but I think if we can change a little bit and work towards that progress, I think it'll be in a better place."
— Ned Griffen
Malik Chase, who will be a senior on the Mitchell College men's basketball team this winter, learned from his older brother what to do if pulled over by the police during a traffic stop. He's relied on Isaiah's advice on more than one occasion.
"I have had a few run-ins," Chase said. "They'll pull me over at times for no reason. I might be going five miles over the speed limit on the highway and get pulled over when there's other cars speeding by me in the fast lane. Things like that."
"... What I do when cops pull me over, I just make sure to try to give them no reason at all to feel like they're threatened. I make sure I turn on my interior light, keep my hands on the steering wheel. If they ask for my registration, I let them know that I'm reaching into my glove box.
"Just so that they never feel fearful about anything going on. It's something that you grew used to just to try to protect yourself even though you really shouldn't have to. My oldest brother, Isaiah, taught me just to do it just to make sure they never have a reason."
Chase, 21, was born in Providence, graduated from Classical High School and now lives in the north end of the city.
Protests sparked by outrage over the death of George Floyd have been held in downtown Providence. There's was a 9 p.m. curfew until it was lifted on Saturday.
"I just found it really odd that Providence's curfew is much longer than anybody else (in the state)," Chase said. "It just ties into everything else that's been going on lately. It's worrisome just trying to make sure that you're home before nine because you never know what cops might try to do. They said it's for pedestrians — you're not supposed to be walking around, but you can be in your car — but you never know at this point any more."
Chase has a big problem with the television news coverage of the protests. He believes it doesn't accurately portray what's been happening. From what he's seen on social media, peaceful protesters are trying to prevent troublemakers from doing the wrong thing. He's seen conflicting videos, showing police kneeling with protesters at times and throwing tear gas at them at other times.
"Luckily, a lot of people on Twitter have been exposing things that are happening much better than the news," Chase said.
Chase is hopeful that the current racial climate will change for the better.
"Hopefully, that's the goal of it all — reform," he said. "We want to see changes. That's why we're doing what we're doing at this point and time. The whole goal of it is for blacks to be treated equally and fairly and justly. There's a big problem with systematic racism in this country.
"Even though they said all men are created equal, they weren't pertaining to black people in that statement."
— Gavin Keefe
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