Masai Ujiri and Police Who Live Above the Law

We finally have police camera video from the incident at the end of last season’s NBA finals when Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri engaged in a “confrontation” with Alameda Country police. The police version of events was always doubtful: They immediately put out the idea that after the Raptors won the title, Ujiri attempted to rush the court without credentials, and on the way physically assaulted an officer, striking him in the face. They recommended prosecution to the district attorney last summer, who took one look at the facts of the case and threw it in the trash.

Their story always stunk to high heaven, because amateur video of Ujiri at the time showed that he did in fact have a badge and no one could find any kind of a punch, despite thousands of smartphone cameras capturing the moment when the Raptors won the title. Now the cam footage brings the lies of the police to an entirely other level. The police video shows the officer twice shoving Ujiri very hard. No punches are thrown, and Ujiri’s credentials are clutched in his hand.

The police have been caught lying. In a functioning society, both the officer in question and the department would have to pay a price for that. Yet now the police, in a state of utter arrogance and crude Trumpian gaslighting, are still insisting that an assault took place.

This case exposes so much more than a corrupt cop who has collected $150,000 in “disability” over the last year over the “trauma” that Ujiri caused him. It shows a police department that believes that it is above the law, no matter the circumstances, no matter the subject of their abuse.

As Jeff Berg wrote in Counterpunch,

Masai is very wealthy, very famous, hell he was sitting at a game with Obama a few days earlier, and the head of a multi-billion dollar enterprise. The officer in question on the other hand has a sordid past of frivolous lawsuits and a conviction for an insurance scam. And yet with all of the evidence, with the power imbalance going in Masai’s favor, with all of the personal credibility going in Masai’s favor, still the ‘Thin Blue Line’ refused to bend. Not to reality, not to common sense, not even to self-preservation. That is how sure they are of their impunity.

After the video went public, Ujiri issued a statement of his own, a statement that was circulated throughout the NBA and even posted on the NBA’s website. It’s an astounding missive that speaks to both the post–George Floyd era and the politicization of the NBA that has taken place over the last six months, a politicization that is looking more like a phenomena—at least for now—that extends beyond “woke” marketing and towards a guiding political ethos. Ujiri writes,

Thank you to everybody who has expressed disappointment and concern regarding the video that was recently released. My family and I are deeply grateful for your care and consideration.

The video sadly demonstrates how horribly I was treated by a law enforcement officer last year in the midst of my team, the Toronto Raptors, winning its first world championship. It was an exhilarating moment of achievement for our organization, for our players, for our city, for our country, and for me personally, given my long-tenured professional journey in the NBA. Yet, unfortunately, I was reminded in that moment that despite all of my hard work and success, there are some people, including those who are supposed to protect us, who will always and only see me as something that is unworthy of respectful engagement. And, there’s only one indisputable reason why that is the case – because I am Black.

What saddens me most about this ordeal is that the only reason why I am getting the justice I deserve in this moment is because of my success. Because I’m the President of a NBA team, I had access to resources that ensured I could demand and fight for my justice. So many of my brothers and sisters haven’t had, don’t have, and won’t have the same access to resources that assured my justice. And that’s why Black Lives Matter.

And that’s why it’s important for all of us to keep demanding justice. Justice for George. Justice for Breonna. Justice for Elijah. Justice for far too many Black lives that mattered. And justice for Black people around the world, who need our voice and our compassion to save their lives.

Those are the ties that bind us.

With love and determination,

Masai Ujiri

Ujiri’s broader political point must not be lost. He is able to wrest a measure of justice from this situation only because he has wealth, power, and position. Yet it has still been a struggle. And this is all over a push. Imagine having no station and being shot or killed by police. We don’t have to imagine. We have too many examples, as Ujiri mentions, of those for whom justice is a pipe dream.

As we see right now in Kenosha, Wis., “no justice, no peace” is more than a slogan. It’s the only avenue available for those to whom even a basic semblance of justice is denied. The people that Trump is calling “the mob” are the only ones—amid pandemic and armed repression—attempting to balance the scales of justice in a time when police carry the unholy arrogance of people who, like their dear leader, believe that they live above the law. The people in the streets are heroes. Masai Ujiri, through his statement and his vigilance, has joined their ranks.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com