OAKLAND – Still sweating from his Monday practice session, David West slides behind a small table, takes a seat and for 11 minutes turns his space into a platform.
The Warriors power forward addresses the catalyst for his subtle demonstration during the playing of the national anthem, during which he stands a few feet behind teammates while contemplating the global state of affairs.
His heightened awareness goes back more than 26 years, to April 1990, when a 16-year-old black boy in his Teaneck, N.J. neighborhood was chased into an alley and killed by a white police officer.
West considers his actions, taken most recently prior to the Warriors-Raptors game Saturday in Vancouver, B.C., less a protest than a personal statement.
“I’ve never been a ‘I’m going to protest the anthem’ (guy),” he says. “The idea is that there is a certain way this society interrelates with one another that does not speak to the humanity of black people in this country. That has been a beginning issue. That is something that I feel is the most important issue.
“If you think about the Mike Brown case in Ferguson, he was turned into something other than a human being, if you read the words that were used to describe him. He was dehumanized. And when you dehumanize people, then you can treat them however you want, you can do what you want to them. And so the humanity part is, for me, the first step that we need to take. And that’s what it’s always been about. It hasn’t been about the anthem. It’s been about me being socially aware.
“The first time I dealt with police violence,” West continues, “I was 9 years old. An officer by the name of Gary Spath shot a dude by the name of Phillip Pannell in the back . . . I’ve been in front of this for a very long time. And as a child, when you deal with that . . . we didn’t address the issues that that brought to us as young children. The whole block was full of children, and we experienced that. I was 9 years old. I’m 36. And we’re still dealing with the same thing.”
Though he understands the widely publicized position taken by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose decision in August to protest the anthem has reignited discussion about racial and economic inequality in the United States, West has been quietly demonstrating for most of his 13-year NBA career.
What sparked West’s concern and attention as young boy still drives his thoughts and actions as one of the most respected veterans in the NBA.
“What we’re dealing with now, it’s not new,” he says. “Maybe it’s raising awareness for some guys, which is great. But there are a lot of people who have always stayed the course and been fighting the good fight. I don’t think that it’s so much about the gesture. I think it’s more about the issues and people willing to humanize one another, which is my point in all of this.
“I don’t want this to continue. Obviously, there’s a lot of healing that needs to go on. But I’m going to continue to do my work, continue to contribute where I can, because that’s what matters in the end.”
West, like Kaepernick, sees his actions as deeply personal, demanded by his conscience. But West is focused on a wider target, covering not only police brutality but also poverty, child neglect, incarceration and education.
He considers all of it, every cause, as solvable by decent and humane treatment.
“The same language that was used to demonize guys – whether or not you think they were unjustly murdered – is the same language you were hearing when I was 9 years old,” he says. “And that’s my issue. Humanize people. We are people. We wake up. We go to sleep. We use the bathroom. We need water and food to survive. Humanize people.
“Our issue is to step on the level playing field of humanity. That has been the issue. It’s not about an anthem. It’s not about the specific issue. You need to humanize who we are, what we are. And that’s really it. It’s not something that is easy. It’s not something that’s going to go away overnight. But the human element of it has got to the first step. Before we get to the details, let’s humanize people.”
It is late in this passionate session that West brings the subject home. Literally. He talks about how his mother Harriet, after the Pannell shooting (the officer, who had fired his weapon three times in the previous five years, was charged with manslaughter but acquitted), kept closer watch on her children. And how he already has felt the need to discuss racial bias with his son, also named David.
“He’s 7, but he’s the size of an 11-year-old,” West says. “So I’ve got to talk to him now.”
West has an end game. He knows what he wants and hopes to live to see it. Solving America’s biggest social issue begins with making the phrase “all men are created equal” not merely a line in the Declaration of Independence but a living reality.
“It’s just one of those moments,” he says of the anthem, “where we’ve got to really examine the human element in this. We’ve got to start there before start anywhere else.”