Ryan Clark: With each tragedy, we get further from understanding where it started
The former NFL player and Louisiana native worries about the nation’s ability to heal
Like many others this month, former NFL player and Louisiana native Ryan Clark has struggled emotionally amid the ongoing racial strife ignited by two killings at the hands of police — Alton Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile, 32, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota — the subsequent deaths of five police officers and wounding of seven others in Dallas by a sniper and yet another national tragedy in Baton Rouge this week: three police officers assassinated and three injured. Clark worries about what’s ahead for both Louisiana and the nation, and wonders whether it’s even possible for healing to truly occur.
I’m proud of where I’m from. I live close to Baton Rouge because I wanted my kids to grow up here. But when you hear about Alton Sterling, and when you see the video, and when you feel like everything that is being said [by white people] in defense of the police shooting Alton Sterling … it upsets you. It makes you mad. Then Dallas happens; cops are killed. And then on Sunday, three more cops are killed. You can’t help but think it’s only getting worse.
People who were united, the black people who were together after the shooting of Alton Sterling, are suddenly fragmented because there’s a black cop who died. It’s not as simple as just everybody being angry at the police. We’re upset because a black cop lost his life. There are all these things we, black people, are feeling. There are also people who understand that it’s just not about the black lives being lost — it’s about all the lives being lost.
The problem is, we’ve gotten to a point where each time something happens, whenever there’s another tragedy, we get further and further away from understanding where it started. It started with Alton Sterling, a man we believe was killed unjustly. You feel like justice won’t be done. Why? Because we’ve seen that time after time after time in our history, we didn’t get justice. If people feel they won’t get justice, they take things into their own hands. Anyone who does that, though, is only making everything worse. Don’t you understand that all you’re doing is pulling people away from what the narrative has to be to have any chance for change? What we need to stay focused on is that men who should not have died, did die at the hands of police.
I know the frustration that builds up. The racism here [in Louisiana] … it’s real. They don’t hide it. I’ve lived up north. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh and Virginia. You see all these people united. On Sundays in church, you see there are so many churches that are multicultural. That’s not how I grew up here. My experience was very different. In high school, I had a girlfriend whose house I couldn’t go to. It’s a place where, when growing up, you heard people call you the N-word. You saw the look on faces when people felt you were in a place you didn’t deserve to be.
Since the shootings and the murders of the cops, it has been so strange. Just the way white people now address you … it has been different. One Sunday, a white man held the door for me and my whole family. He must have held that door for us to walk 15 feet to get there. When we got to the door, he wished us well. He wished us peace and love. That’s not something I’m used to here. What I’m finding is that the white people here who do get it, man, they really get it. They’re trying to empathize with what we feel and what we’re going through. They also acknowledge, though, that they can’t truly understand what it’s like to be a black man in Louisiana and a black man in America. But they’re truly sympathetic and trying to understand, which is good.
Recently, I was at a [football practice] with an older white man I know. He just turned to me and said he wanted to know what they’re doing wrong. He really wanted to know what white people can do better. That started a conversation just between two people. On a much bigger level, that’s what we need. You have good people on that side who really do want to understand and try to do better. How much progress could we make if not for all these killings? Those conversations stop, we can’t have them the way we need to have them, because the killings make us step back again. It makes us start all over again.
I was talking with [NBA player] Garrett Temple, who’s from Baton Rouge, about what we can do. We were talking about what we should do. As a black athlete, a former black athlete or a black person with a voice here, you want to show the people in your community that you’re with them. You want to be involved and out there because you need to be involved and out there. It’s a responsibility we have. But is being out on the front line of a protest the right place to be at this moment? Is that the way to try to help? Will that bring unity to the community? You ask yourself these questions because you really don’t know. If you protest against the cops, you’re leading one group against another. Is that needed now? That’s what is so frustrating: wanting to do something and having no idea exactly what to do.
Where do you start? What statement can you make? What’s the right gesture? With so much killing going on and so many people divided, what can you do to bring people together? That’s what we need most right now. We can’t make any improvements until that happens first. It’s almost like we’re in this horrible cycle where somebody has to die for one side to feel better. Ask yourself this: Could you really blame any cops right now for being scared? Could you blame them for being apprehensive whenever they go out there? I know I couldn’t blame them. Look at what they’re facing.
On the other side, you can also expect black men to be apprehensive. I was out late visiting some friends the other night. My mother texted me. My wife texted me. They wanted me to get home as soon as possible. I’m a 36-year-old man and I really don’t do anything, meaning that I’m not out partying or being belligerent. Still, my mom and my wife were both nervous. Cops and black men — each side is on edge because it’s hard to deal with all of this.
If a cop stops someone and he makes a move just to show his wallet, who’s to tell that cop, with where we’re at now, that he won’t be the next cop to be shot? And if a cop pulls over a black man, and the cop walks up to the car with his hand on his gun, who’s to say that black man shouldn’t be worried? What we have to do, somehow, is figure out a way to show that there still can be a foundation of togetherness.
After Alton Sterling was shot and Philando Castile was shot, something struck me when we were in church. One of the associate pastors was trying to tell us [the congregation] what our place was, how Christians can help fix these things and the role the church plays in this. This pastor works with [other pastors] in the ‘hood, close to where Alton Sterling was killed, and he was saying they recently had a meeting. But there were certain topics they knew they couldn’t discuss [with white members of the clergy]. Even those men, those Christian brothers who lead our churches in our communities, couldn’t have certain conversations because there would be disagreements about what has happened over the past few weeks.
The way I see it is that those brothers [Sterling and Castile] should not have been killed. What those brothers were doing did not warrant them losing their lives. There’s nothing you could tell me that would convince me that what happened to them was justified. There’s no conversation that we could have that would change my mind about that. So if you’re on the other side of that, yeah, we’re not going to agree. Also, I don’t understand how you could be on the other side of that. For me, there’s no working through that.
The other part of it is that, no, we can’t shoot cops. That can’t be supported. I know some people, some white people, will read this and think that there’s no reason to say that. Of course, no one should support shooting cops. I see it that way, too, but there are going to be some black people who disagree. They’ll say it’s justified because of our history; we get no justice. They’ll say it’s because the people we’ve put in place, the elected officials who are supposed to fix these things, haven’t fixed them.
What’s happening, though, is that with every cop that has been shot, every cop that has died, there’s a bigger wedge being driven in the black community. You have somebody like me, when you ask me about the cops that have died, I’m not going to support that. I want that to stop. That shouldn’t have happened to those cops. But to some black people, and this is hard to say, they look at the guys who shot the cops in Dallas and here in Baton Rouge, and they see heroes. I’m in the barbershop and this guy is telling me why people are heroes for shooting cops. Do I agree with it? No. But I don’t have to agree with something to understand the thoughts behind it.
What it really comes down to is that we’re so far away from where we need to be to have the discussions we need to have. We had a chance the week that Sterling and Castile were killed. Now, I don’t know. Maybe that window has closed because of everything that has happened. We’ve got to get back to a place where we can try again. We’ve got to get to it here in Louisiana and throughout America. The longer it takes to get there, the worse it’s going to be for all of us.
While at Louisiana State University, Clark started 36 consecutive games at safety. Despite being an undrafted rookie free agent, he went on to have a 13-year NFL career, playing with the New York Giants, Washington Redskins (two stints) and Pittsburgh Steelers. A starter on Pittsburgh’s 2009 Super Bowl-winning team, Clark retired after the 2014 season and will soon begin his second year as an ESPN NFL analyst.