Amid anti-Black racism protests, Masai Ujiri urges people to ask: 'Who are you as a person?'
'We have police issues, we have so many institutional issues, but racism is the core of this thing'
Originally published on June 17, 2020
Masai Ujiri says the video of George Floyd's murder is "one of the toughest things I've ever watched."
"I don't know how somebody can sit on somebody's neck like that and not have any feeling inside you — your hands in your pockets," said Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors and founder of the non-profit organization Giants of Africa, a youth basketball program.
"In my mind, that's the most cruel that it could ever get — and with three people around him, watching that happen," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.
"You keep thinking about it, you get more angry and angry when you watch it."
His anger hasn't abated in the weeks since Floyd died — on May 25 under the knee of an arresting police officer in Minneapolis, Minn. — as protests about his death became the setting for further police violence toward demonstrators.
Ujiri referred to video that captured two Buffalo, N.Y., officers pushing a 75-year-old protester to the ground where he lay bleeding as more police marched by.
"I don't give a damn if you are police or whoever you are, you are a human being," Ujiri told Galloway.
"If you see an old man bleeding from his ear, pick his ass up — that's what we do as humans," he said.
"To me, it's being a human being, and it's time we talk about how humanity is in our society, because it's a really, really big thing we have to address."
Since Floyd's death, initial protests about police brutality have grown into demonstrations and conversations about systemic racism in all walks of life, including the media and education system.
"There seems to be something different in the air this time," Ujiri said.
This is a moment, he said, "for everybody to look at themselves in the mirror," and ask "Who are you as a person?"
"Black people are tired, Indigenous people are tired … everybody is tired of — I call it as it is — the white race being seen as the superior race."
Confront racism 'at every level'
A year ago this week, the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors at Oakland's Oracle Arena. But when Ujiri tried to join his team on the court in that moment of triumph, he was stopped by a sheriff's deputy working security at the game, who said Ujiri did not provide the proper on-court credential.
A shoving match ensued and was partially captured on camera.
In February, the sheriff's deputy, Alan Strickland, filed a lawsuit alleging Ujiri had caused him "great mental, physical, emotional and psychological pain and suffering," but the team president dismissed the case as "malicious." In a document filed in April in a California district court, Ujiri alleges Strickland assaulted him.
"I actually look at it as nothing, and him as a nobody to me, because, one, he's not going to stop me from being who I am and the person that I am," he told Galloway.
"Secondly, I can't imagine how many people go through this and it's not on camera," he said.
"Imagine how many of these things happen and nobody ever sees it, nobody ever hears the story."
Ujiri said he wants Canada to "call a spade a spade" when it comes to racism, and for leadership that calls it out in every kind of organization.
"We have police issues, we have so many institutional issues, but racism is the core of this thing, and we have to confront that now," he said.
"This goes on at every level and wherever you are as a leader … when you see these things happen, call them out," he said.
That leadership can start with our young people, he said.
"The one thing we want the youth to know now is they are the ones that are going to change this," Ujiri told Galloway.
"We say we can't change a lot of 50-year-olds or 60-year-olds, but those youth, they can determine what the future is."
Youth have 'unique time' to change world
The COVID-19 pandemic has halted graduation ceremonies for a lot of young people this year, but Ujiri's organization Giants of Africa is running an initiative to help make it a special moment for those leaving Grade 8.
At participating schools, students are receiving graduation gift packs that include a basketball, T-shirt and gift cards, among other items like face masks and food baskets.
"It's just some little form of telling them that we're thinking of them," he said.
"It's a good time to relate to them in a positive way and give them a sense of hope, a sense of pride.
While he empathizes with students who won't get the full graduation experience because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ujiri urged them to not "look at this moment as a negative."
"I think it's a unique time that they can actually take advantage of. It doesn't matter how they graduate, they are still the future," he said.
"It's a time to dream big, be bold, and think of life differently, especially with all the times we are going through now."
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Idella Sturino.