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Thirty years ago, Jamaal Wilkes was as upright a citizen as you could find in Los Angeles. He was the owner of a financial services company, Smooth as Silk Enterprises, that echoed a nickname he had acquired on the basketball court. A 1970 graduate of Santa Barbara High, he played the hoops game with an understated finesse that won the highest admiration from John Wooden, the legendary coach at UCLA. The 6′7″ forward went on to a 12-year NBA career, earning four championship rings (one with the Golden State Warriors and three with the Lakers).
He was a proud Black American who always stood for the national anthem and supported the work of the police to keep the community safe. So what was Wilkes doing in handcuffs at a downtown L.A. street corner on a December night in 1990? He was wondering the same thing.
He was driving home from his office on Wilshire Boulevard when two LAPD officers pulled him over, ordered him out of his car, and cuffed him with no reasonable explanation. They said something about his license tags being about to expire. Eventually, they let him go on his way, but the humiliation stayed with him a long time. It was an egregious case of a person being detained simply for driving while Black.
Wilkes filed a complaint but did not follow up on it because, three months later, the brutal beating of Rodney King by four L.A. policemen was captured on video. That incident, Wilkes figured, would make an irrefutable case that the LAPD needed to purge racist behavior from its ranks. A year later, all four officers were acquitted, setting off a horrific five-day riot. “I was shocked by the verdict,” Wilkes told me. “I was further shocked by the riots.”
I interviewed Wilkes after the riots subsided, a week before he was to be guest speaker at the 1992 Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Hall of Fame banquet. During our conversation, he recalled his own disturbing experience with the LAPD.
“Standing there handcuffed, I felt like a common thug,” he said. “What hurt me most was that I was on their side. I’ve always been a supporter of law enforcement. But their treatment of me was arrogant and distasteful. They acted like I was dangerous.
“The way they handled things, it could have gotten ugly. If I got angry and said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ it might have started something. I realized how easily police brutality could happen. It made me more sympathetic toward the common guy who isn’t famous and gets into a situation like that.”
Jump ahead to May 25, 2020, when another former basketball player, one who was not famous, was arrested by Minneapolis police over what was believed to be a counterfeit $20 bill. His name was George Floyd. I was on the phone with Wilkes last week.
“There’s no mistaking what happened to George Floyd,” he said. “He was clearly murdered. We don’t have to speculate about it. [The police] can no longer hide behind the blue wall. We can’t tiptoe around the elephant in the room that is systemic racism.” Wilkes sees the Black Lives Matter movement as an essential response. “Of course, all lives matter,” he said. “But not all lives are being slaughtered in the streets.”
In the immediate wake of the 1992 L.A. riots, Wilkes spoke words that could be applied to the entire country today: “We have to think of long-term solutions. Los Angeles needs to be rebuilt physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. The issues that must be confronted are complex, to say the least. It will involve a lot of people approaching it from different perspectives and angles to make it happen. We’ve got to come up with solutions to our problems and make them stick. If people don’t have hope that they can make it in the system, they’ll go outside.”
The problems still cry out for solutions. Innocent Black people are still being harassed — last week, my colleague Victor Bryant, another responsible citizen, revealed he had been pulled over by traffic cops five times in one year without being ticketed — and arrests are escalated into tragic killings. You have to wonder how many atrocities were committed before phone cameras started recording them. As a white person, I cannot imagine living in fear of such oppression. I have inherited a privilege that goes back 400 years.
Wilkes is hopeful that the time has finally come. The current global outpouring of support for racial equality reminds him of the civil rights movement when he was a child. He remembers the courageous demonstration of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
“I don’t know if I agree with that form of protest, but I respected that,” he said. “They didn’t gain anything; they became outcasts.” Likewise, he respected Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling to protest racial injustice during the national anthem and thinks the blackballed quarterback deserves another shot in the NFL.
Wilkes himself has never resorted to an overt display of outrage. “I am a private guy,” he said. John Wooden had described him as “a beautiful young man” with such qualities as being courteous and polite. Wilkes expressed simple gratitude, no shouting and exulting, when he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
In quietly but vividly describing what happened to him 30 years ago, Wilkes delivered a powerful message. If this thoughtful, mild-mannered man can be subjected to abuse because of the color of his skin, anybody can. “I’m still proud to be an American,” he said. “No society is perfect.” Yet if there is one thing that could bring this country significantly closer to perfection, it would be the end of racial inequality. “I’m encouraged,” Wilkes said. “The protests need to be converted to votes.”
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