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Lee Merritt: The NBA could impact public policy and elections

Lee Merritt: The NBA could impact public policy and elections

Civil Rights attorney Lee Merritt discusses the power and influence the NBA has, and can continue to have — if the NBA continues using its platform, voices and resources to fight for justice. 

Lee Merritt is one of the attorneys for Ahmaud Arbery’s family — a 25-year-old black man who was murdered while on a run near Brunswick, in Glynn County, Georgia. A verdict of life imprisonment was just announced in the case, in which three men were convicted of murdering Arbery. While Lee Merritt is definitely relieved about the verdict, we discuss the long road ahead to achieve justice and equality for all. Merritt is running for attorney general in Texas and I would love to see the NBA duplicate what the WNBA did, when they threw their support behind Raphael Warnock, an Atlanta-area pastor who was running as a Democrat at the time for (and would eventually win) one of Georgia’s seats in the U.S. Senate. 

This was a great discussion.

Etan Thomas: So this time last year, I interviewed a group of WNBA players, [including] Renee Montgomery and Elizabeth Williams, who both played for the Atlanta Dream at the time, [as well as] Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Angel McCoughtry — and Eric Garner's daughter, Emerald. And we discussed what the WNBA did to galvanize support for Raphael Warnock, and ultimately get him in office and Kelly Loeffler out of office. And it was really amazing. Because for one, Raphael Warnock was polling at 9% before the WNBA got involved. And he won — in Georgia, of all places. 

So I want to see how we can galvanize the NBA to duplicate that with you, as you're running for attorney general in the state of Texas. So that's why I reached out to you to have this interview with you. I've been following you for a long time and I'm a big fan of the work that you do. And so, I'm going to send this interview to the NBA, to the NBA Social Change Fund.

Which, for those that aren't familiar, it was birthed out of the Bubble season. After the NBA players went on strike, after Jacob Blake was shot multiple times in broad daylight, in front of his children. The NBA Social Change Fund was formed by Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade, and is aimed to support critical issues in the black community.

So that's why after speaking to Allisa Charles-Findley, who is Botham Jean's sister — and I actually interviewed her for my new book, “Police Brutality and White Supremacy: The Fight Against American Traditions.

She was one of the people I interviewed, along with Atatiana Jefferson's family, who I know that you work with as well — so we came up with the idea of conducting this interview with you, to try to galvanize that support from the NBA. Some people are like, "Alright, you usually do basketball stuff. Why are you interviewing a politician right now?" But that's the reason why. So thank you for taking this time.

Lee Merritt: "Sure, I really appreciate that. During most of my career, I've enjoyed the support of the National Basketball Association. I can recall in 2017, a young man named Jordan Edwards was slain in Balch Springs, Texas. 

"It was in the middle of the NBA playoffs — and Steve Kerr, who had suffered family tragedy as well, identified with that family, reached out, invited them to the playoff games [and] got his brothers to take their mind off of it for a bit.

"I actually used to coach basketball myself. I was a coach down at South Atlanta High School. I coached Derrick Favors, I coached against Cousins and Walls* when they were high school students. And I enjoy a relationship with them today, continuing to give back to the community of Atlanta.

"And yeah, the names that you mentioned that you work with, Chris Paul has supported the work and the families I represent. Dwyane Wade and his wife, Gabrielle Union, [have] been major, major supporters over the course of my career.

"And, just as I transition away from representing one family at a time and start talking about representing larger groups of people and going towards policies, I certainly think the NBA can play a major role — in not only the success of the campaign, but championing some of those issues that we're fighting for on a case-by-case basis, and taking it to one of the biggest states in the country and really impacting national policy."

Etan: So, let me ask you to review some of the cases that you've worked with before, and the people that you've represented. We could start off with Ahmaud Arbery.

Merritt: "Sure. I came to represent the Ahmaud Arbery family before the video was released of his brutal slaying in South Georgia. Many [...] will recall that he was a South Georgia jogger. On February 23, 2020, he was targeted by three white men who have now been each convicted of murder, and are facing life sentences in the state of Georgia, as well as federal hate crime charges.

"I've also represented... Unfortunately, the list of families that I've represented is quite extensive. I represent over 67 families who have suffered misuse of force, that lost a loved one, as a result of the deadliest police culture in the world. Some of the names that your viewers may have heard of.

"You mentioned [...] Atatiana Jefferson

"Of course, that case is ongoing. Botham Jean, who was an accountant eating a bowl of ice cream in his own apartment complex. 

"Jemel Roberson was a security guard in Chicago. Had just stopped a mass shooting, and was shot in the back by a police officer who must have mistook him for a gunman. 

"Sean Monterrosa in California.

"But the bulk of my work has been in Texas. I represent Damian Daniels, a veteran shot to death in his home. 

"Pamela Turner in the Houston area. 

"And like I said, we could probably spend the rest of this podcast going through the list of names."

Etan: Wow! So now you're running for attorney general in Texas. And for those that don't know, what exactly are the responsibilities of an attorney general?

Merritt: "The attorney general of Texas, and an attorney general in any state, is the legal voice for the people. They're supposed to serve as the spokesperson for what justice is in a municipality. And so we've seen it, in cases like Breonna Taylor, where we had a really bad attorney general interfere with accountability in that case, in the form of Daniel Cameron. We've seen the opposite end of that spectrum with Keith Ellison and the work that he's done in Minnesota. Prosecuting the officers responsible for the death of George Floyd and, most recently, Daunte Wright.

"But even beyond the criminal justice aspect, the attorney general’s office, particularly in the state of Texas, impacts virtually every aspect of Texas life. So property taxes, school protection. And we've heard a lot recently in the news about the CRT [Critical Race Theory] scam, where they're trying to erase entire portions of our history in the name of not getting anyone upset.

"From the border crisis, to really economic empowerment in our schools. There's so many businesses that are attempting to get off the ground, but don't have access to the kind of governmental loans and support that our white counterparts do.

"All of those things run through the attorney general's office. It's a very, very influential office. More or less the second-in-command in the state of Texas."

Etan: Now, Ken Paxton, [is] who you would be running against, and who is the current attorney general — and has been since 2015. I want to talk about the stark differences between the two of you, because it's really night and day.

But I want to start off with this, because the Jan. 6 insurrection [anniversary] is upon us. And you know, I'm looking at him, looking at the footage, and I see him at a rally right before the insurrection, almost like leading the charge. Explain to me, let's start off with there, about the stark differences between you and Ken Paxton.

Merritt: "Well, there is a clear contrast. You know, Texas was in the national news because of [its] unique voter suppression laws. They passed some laws that would make it more difficult for the black and brown people in the state, people with disabilities and marginalized communities to vote.

"It was so upsetting that certain members of the Texas legislature left the state and went to DC — refused to participate in that session in order to fight for voting rights. Now, I was present with them. I thought that was a fight worth standing with people for, providing both legal advice and strategies, working with the labor community and others to take on voting issues in Texas.

"By contrast, the last sort of infamous trip of the attorney general, the current attorney general, to our nation's capital was on Jan. 6. And we don't know exactly what he did there, because he has not participated in an ongoing investigation in terms of his potential criminal liability for helping to incite a riot.

"But he was very publicly on camera, encouraging the soon-to-be riders and insurrectionists that the election was stolen, that they had a responsibility to fight. And he invoked the name of Texas when he did it. He said, "You all should fight, because Texans fight." And he laid out that he had fought to overturn the results of the free and fair election. And yeah, that's our top legal position in the state, advocating for the overthrow of our government."

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We then went on to discuss particular differences between him and Ken Paxton such as his position on education, police reform, border, gun training before owning a gun, and we cleared up the misconceptions on CRT, being anti-police vs. anti-police brutality, Second Amendment rights, etc.

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Etan: So let's go to the NBA, and how important it is for the NBA to continue to promote, to continue to use their platforms, to be able to — I mean, this is the thing. It's important to do that part. But now we have to take it a step further.

And I think the NBA has been doing a great job of promoting, raising awareness. You saw it all especially during the Bubble season, after the entire country was promoting and demonstrating and protesting what happened with George Floyd, what happened with Breonna Taylor [and] Ahmaud Arbery.

You saw John Wall and Bradley Beal here in D.C. leading protests. You saw all the Ball brothers, you saw Russell Westbrook in L.A. You saw Jaylen Brown and Enes Kanter Freedom too, in Boston — of course everything that LeBron was always doing.

But now it's like, it needs to be a step further, like the next step. And I think that you, with what you are trying to implement in Texas as the attorney general, is that next step. Because you have to be able to have someone in place that's on the right side of wanting to be able to create something that functions properly. So just talk about that, how this is like the next step that should happen. Along with [...] raising awareness and protesting and everything like that.

Merritt: "Yeah. I can recall, we were in the middle of the NBA playoffs when Jacob Blake was repeatedly shot in his back by a Milwaukee police officer. And I was watching the game, and Chris Paul had just gone off, sort of a historic performance.

"And they interviewed him right after the game. And they said, 'You know, Chris, you were playing...' I think he was playing his old team, the Houston Rockets. He was with the Oklahoma City Thunder [...], where Derrick Favors is currently.

"And they said, 'Tell us about this performance against your old team. You had a chance to really show them that you still got it.' And he said, 'Yeah, I don't really care about that. That's cool. And that's what I'm paid to do. But a law enforcement officer in my community has just shot someone in their back several times. He was unarmed and nonviolent. Let's talk about that.'

"I think it's on the players to stand up like Chris Paul did, and like you said, like people have done, in a systemic way across the National Basketball Association — where the pundits and the media might tell you, 'Could you just shut up and dribble.' We've heard that refrain before.

"It's important for the players to say, "No, actually I won't. This is my community. What's going on in our community, it's urgent. It's a crisis. It's not something that we want to put off for a later conversation or for the offseason. But where it happens, I'm going to stand up to it. And I will get involved in elections. And I will use my resources and time and attention to shine a light on these issues that must be addressed."

Etan: You know, it's interesting. In my book, “We Matter: Athletes and Activism” I interviewed Jahvaris Fulton, who is Trayvon Martin's brother. And in the interview, he told me how — and when he said this, it kind of threw me,  because I didn't expect him to say it — he said that if it weren't for NBA players and celebrities and everybody like that, talking about his brother, he didn't think that anybody would know his name. And I was like, "Wow, that's kind of strong. Why do you say that?"

So then he explained to me how, when Trayvon Martin was first killed, his family was trying to get the local news people to cover it and they didn't want to cover it. They said, "Okay, another young black man was killed. That's not newsworthy."

And I was like, "That's what they told you?" He said, "Yeah," he was like, "We don't have no evidence. We don't have no video of it. Just your word saying that he [was] killed, that's not newsworthy." And he gave a shout-out to Roland Martin and some of the black news people, who were covering it. But he said, "But no local news people wanted to cover it."

So then he said, "But then, LeBron James started talking about it. And Dwyane Wade started talking about it. And then the entire Miami Heat team posed in the hoodies." So then he said, "So then you had everybody like, 'Okay, what is this that LeBron James is discussing? And why is Dwyane Wade feeling so passionate about this, and talking about his kids, and about this case?' Then everybody started to gravitate towards it and cover it and everything like that."

But he said [...] before, they couldn't get anybody to cover it. And that's just... It's unfortunate that it is that way, because people should have a regard for human life anyway, without an athlete having to speak about it. However, the athlete speaking about it is what drew the attention — and that just shows where athletes have to continue to do that, continue to use your voice and your platform to be able to speak to these causes.

And also to take it a step further by having laws being changed, and people who are in positions to fight for laws being changed, like [you are]. You know what I mean? And running for attorney general — [who] are in positions to actually implement some things so these things don't just continue to keep happening.

Merritt: "Yeah. I can remember in 2016, we saw two high-profile officer-involved shootings back-to-back, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. It was the same weekend, and it was almost like a dark cloud being hanged over impacted communities. And if you and I saw each other on the street, we would make eye contact and say, 'You know, man, this is becoming too much.'

"Dallas had a protest — I was living in Dallas at the time. And they had a protest downtown, where we marched and we discussed what happened, and started to talk about organizing police reform. And at the end of that protest, a vigilante named Micah Xavier Johnson, targeted law enforcement officers and shot five police officers and a couple of civilians as well. And you could imagine the national outcry about Black Lives Matter, and how they put law enforcement lives at risk.

"And everyone began to ignore the fact that people were there for protesting peacefully about police violence — that was back-to-back and overwhelming. And while it was a tragedy for our entire community that law enforcement officers were targeted by Mr. Johnson, there was also an ongoing crisis in our community, that was the reason that all those people had gathered and made targets of themselves.

"And it was Dwyane Wade. LeBron was still, I think, in 2016, with the Miami Heat. So it was Wade and LeBron who came forward at the ESPY Awards that weekend and re-centered the conversation. And said, 'That's terrible what happened in Dallas, and we back the blue. We stand for the law enforcement officers.'

“But understand that our community is also under attack. And it's two sides of the same coin. We don't tolerate violence directed at law enforcement officers. And we cannot continue to tolerate violence directed at our community.

And it saved the national conversation so that we could get back to what had brought us all there in the first place. And so, yeah, members of the NBA have the opportunity, in [the] state of Texas, but [also] throughout the country, the voices of the NBA are critically important to that."

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