It was an early August morning when Patrisse Cullors received another text from another panicked, black man.
Minutes past midnight in the heart of the Vegas strip, the man found himself in a position he had read and thought about endlessly: a gun near his ear, a cop’s knee thrust in his back, and his face jammed on the concrete. There was fear in his heart. There was no one around to help him.
He was leaving a boxing match when he thought he heard the pop of gunfire. He ran. Because he ran, officers stopped him and shoved guns in his face. According to their account, because of his actions and the reported gunshots, they chased him and the man got handcuffed. They thought he looked suspicious. Michael Bennett thought he was black in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Bennett, a Seattle Seahawks star and activist for black rights, had a different account than police. About how he was ordered to the ground. How an officer said if Bennett moved he’d “blow his fucking head off.” And how they detained him, then cobra-gripped his handcuffs, the pressure so tight his fingers went numb. He thought he might die on that pavement, for no other reason than being black.
After his detainment, and after Bennett says officers realized he was an NFL star, he was released. Trying to calm himself, he made a series of calls and texts through the night. His father woke in Katy, Texas, horrified at what his son told him. His brother, Martellus, cried and left team meetings in Green Bay seeing video of Michael’s arrest. But sometime before morning and after he left the back of a police car, he texted Cullors — one of the co-founders of the original Black Lives Matter movement.
“You’re never going to believe what happened to me,’” Bennett wrote.
Cullors has been on this side of the phone before. She’s helped the families of those slain by police. Every time a cryptic line comes to her cellphone, there’s a similar pause. He was scared. She was scared.
“Obviously, when any black person texts me anything like that, I’m nervous,” Cullors said.
The two had been friendly all summer. When Seattle Police shot Charleena Lyles seven times this summer, Bennett’s advocacy efforts led him to reach out to Lyles’ family. Cullors was called. The pair met briefly in Los Angeles. A month before cops allegedly profiled him in Vegas, the duo was in Judkins Park supporting Lyles’ family with a noticeable rally.
On this dizzying morning, Bennett and Cullors were going over details on the phone. She started peppering him with questions.
“What do you need?” she asked.
“What type of support do you want?” she said.
“Do you need legal counsel?”
Bennett could only relive the nightmare. His life had just flashed before his eyes. What was he going to tell his family? How could he explain this to Pele, his wife, whom he met as a teenager? Or his three girls: Ollie and Blake and Peyton?
Cullors knew this pain. Better for Bennett, she knew how to ease his angst.
“There’s nothing like having your life threatened,” she said. “Given what we’ve seen as black people and given, as a country, the consistent law enforcement violence and officer involved killings, I was scared for him.
“It’s very trying when your life is threatened by the institution,” she continued. “Because the institution is going to protect itself by any means necessary.”
In the days that passed, Bennett and Cullors spoke frequently. She connected with local activists and organizers in Vegas — people like Rev. Stretch Sanders, a strong voice of protest and a man holding police accountable in the desert.
The day before Bennett told the world of the terror that met him that night, Cullors called one last time. She wanted to check on him, as she would any victim of a moment like this. He pushed while she listened. Bennett needed to tell his side. He had to shed light on what happened to him.
People around him didn’t know if it was the best idea. His father reassured him. So did Cullors. This moment, around his alleged profiling, including his anthem protests, has made Bennett into a figure people were looking to. Before Cullors hung up, Bennett thanked her.
“He was grateful for being alive,” she said. “I’m glad. I’m glad he’s using his platform to speak out for what happened to him and what’s been happening to black people. He’s one of our best. He’s living in the legacy of Muhammad Ali. We are really lucky to have Michael Bennett in this generation.”
When Bennett told the world Wednesday, Cullors started and aided a grassroots order with the Color of Change coalition to push for the officers that assaulted him to be named. In hours, their petition grew to over 35,000 signatures.
She wanted the world to know that Bennett was terrorized for walking while black. There needed to be an understanding that these mistreatments of black people at the hands of officers is not infrequent, rather, an American disease — an epidemic.
Officers in a union for the Vegas Police Department have already taken time to write to the NFL about investigating Bennett. There are white people nationwide, pundits and shock jocks, moms and dads, who don’t believe this could happen to a pro athlete. But there are countless examples of how financial success cannot help black athletes escape incidents of racism.
“This moment is so clear how this can happen to any black person because racial profiling is how law enforcement relates to their job,” Cullors said. “Their job is to racially profile. To argue that would be them lying.
“This is about people’s families,” she continued. “This is about people going back to their families.”
In response to Bennett’s words, Roger Goodell, the most powerful man in football, released a statement about what happened. He said the issues Bennett has been addressing using his platform in football are “serious.”
It was a progressive statement from a league that has exiled a quarterback from its ranks for talking about the same issues Bennett has during the same time period.
“Shame on the NFL,” Cullors said.
What she pointed out is similar to what many have said about the league’s statement: that the difference in concern for Bennett is because he became a victim when the assumption is that Colin Kaepernick never was.
“They’ve been pretty vocal with Michael, and that’s great. But I’d like them to expand that, and put that into practice and that practice would be bringing Colin back on to play,” she said.
“Them putting out one statement does not change the entirety of what they’ve been doing.”
As conversations are beginning about Bennett — who he is and what happened to him — he’s still expected to sit, to continue to protest, as the NFL season starts. But what needs to be remembered is his bravery.
Bennett was assaulted and manhandled by the people paid to protect him. It is difficult to fight the state, the entities continuing this sanctioned violence, when one considers this, Cullors said. In that, it should be remembered that a 6’4 millionaire was made to feel inhuman. That this can happen to anyone.
It’s a pained truth for victims and black people experiencing the horrors of police violence. Or, as Bennett bluntly put it, “when you are seen as a ‘N*****’ you will be treated that way.”
As Cullors said: “It’s very courageous to say: ‘No, not only was I a victim of police brutality, I align myself with the other victims like Charleena Lyles, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, who were just living, and being black, and died because of it.’”