TORONTO – During his senior year of high school, the recently licensed Anthony Alford, his then-girlfriend (now-wife), Bailey, and his best friend, GeMonee Brown, drove over to Baton Rouge, La., to catch an LSU football game. The Tigers romped past the Florida Gators 41–11 that day, the trio enjoyed every moment, and were in a jovial mood on the two-and-a-half-hour drive home to Petal, Miss., relishing in the new-found freedom of early adulthood.
They were on I-59, south of Hattiesburg, Miss., when suddenly police lights flashed behind them and they were ordered to pull over. Confusion reigned. Alford was sure he hadn’t done anything wrong as the officer approached.
“He started asking us questions: ‘Is there anything illegal in the car? Have you been drinking? Are there any drugs in the car? Are there guns in the car?’ I said, ‘No.’ He made us get out of the car. I didn’t know my rights at the time — we didn’t have to get out of the car — but I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll get out of the car,’ because I didn’t have anything to hide. He searched my car from front to back, pulling stuff out. We were just standing on the side of the road. This is like 11:00 at night, stuff laying on the ground. And when he finished, he just said, ‘All right, y’all have a good night. Drive safe.’
“He didn’t give us a ticket. He didn’t tell us why he pulled us over. He just saw three African American people in the car … pulled us over and illegally searched our car. Those are the kinds of incidents that happen with black people. For you to just do some high school students like that, man, that’s not right. That’s not right.”
That was Alford’s first ever traffic stop, and it’s one of many things the Toronto Blue Jays outfielder has tried to make sense of in the days since George Floyd was killed beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Video of Floyd pleading for his life, saying he couldn’t breathe, sparked protests across North America denouncing police brutality, racism and systemic injustices faced by the black community.
Alford and Bailey have joined protests in Petal, where Mayor Hal Marx outrageously tweeted that he “didn’t see anything unreasonable” in the way police handled Floyd’s arrest.
“If you can say you can’t breathe, you’re breathing,” his tweet continued. “Most likely that man died of overdose or heart attack. Video doesn’t show his resistance that got him in that position. Police being crucified.”
Alford, who says he tries not to be political, refused to let that slide. He understandably fears what local police officers will take from Marx’s message. This is what he tweeted back:
How could you watch that #GeorgeFloyd video and make an idiotic comment like this? As a former petal resident, I find this disturbing. It’s people like @MayorHalMarx who make other Mississippians look bad. I pray for the #GeorgeFloyd family. I pray for justice pic.twitter.com/CixmYfxc7P
— Anthony Alford (@ajalford_) May 28, 2020
Marx has since apologized, but rebuffed resignation calls from his own council. Alford is concerned that “he’s giving a bad name to not only the city of Petal, but the state of Mississippi.”
“There are lots of good people in Petal, Miss. I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for some of the people in Petal, Miss.,” he adds. “But that’s the mindset of a lot white Americans. They’re going to always try to find some way to justify why an unarmed black man was killed by the cop.”
So Alford entered the fray, and he has some important things for us to hear, Blue Jays fan or not. I reached him via text earlier this week and asked if he wanted to share some of his thoughts. The conversation, I promised, would be driven by him.
We connected via phone. Here’s what he had to say.
Anthony Alford: “There’s so much — I don’t even know where to start. Obviously what happened to George Floyd shouldn’t have happened, I think everybody knows that, and it wasn’t right. At the same time, this is something that’s been happening for a long, long time in America, but it hasn’t been under the microscope as much as the George Floyd situation has been. These are the reasons Martin Luther King was protesting; these are the reasons that Jackie Robinson (had to fight for acceptance); these are the reasons Colin Kaepernick was protesting. Martin Luther King was trying to peacefully protest and American found something negative to say. Colin Kaepernick tried to simply protest by taking a knee during the national anthem, and it wasn’t a disrespect to the flag or to the country; he was doing it because of police brutality and injustice within the system, but [critics found] something wrong with that. He ended up losing his career because of it. There’s just a double standard.
“A lot of people praise these black athletes on the field when they score touchdowns or dunk a basketball. They praise them between the lines, but as soon as they step outside those lines, they don’t look at us as equals. They don’t try to hear our pain and what we’re going through with the things that affect us in our community. There’s just so much. It’s a fight that we’ve been fighting for so long, and we can’t really explain the pain we feel, or the anxiety we feel when we see another unarmed black man getting murdered. It’s a feeling you can’t explain because white people will never really understand. Even when we cry out for help, they don’t really try to listen. They listen to respond, instead of listening to us to learn about the situation. That’s what needs to happen. If they listen to actually learn about it – we’re not asking you to feel the same way we feel because we know that’s impossible. But try to learn how we feel. This is something we can’t fix on our own. Black people can’t fight this fight on our own. It’s going to take everyone coming together to fight and change the system.
“We have so many cops that murder these unarmed people. I look at Breonna Taylor — she was in her own apartment. Look at Ahmaud Arbery — that was in February and they just made an arrest last month. The one that’s most disturbing is what happened in Central Park (when a white woman called the police on a black man for pointing out that posted rules stated her dog needed to be on a leash). That happens to black people. Everyone can see on the video that this man was not trying to harm her and she knows that if she calls the police and says a black man is trying to harm her, that’s putting that man’s life in harm’s way. Look at Emmitt Till (a 14-year-old brutally murdered in 1955 after being accused of flirting with a white woman) — that happened right here in Money, Miss., and it’s the same exact thing. That situation (in Central Park) could have gone really bad. I feel like people see it, but they don’t want to see it. They see the struggle we’re going through, but they don’t too much care about it.
“Just to give you a different perspective — even when it comes to police and the black community, you see way more roadblocks in black communities, you see way more people pulled over in black communities. The feeling a black person gets versus a white person is totally different. When you have an encounter with a police officer you should feel protected…. (But) a lot of black people, probably not everyone, are going to feel threatened, you know? It’s just sad, man. I wish I could do more. I wish I had the answer to everything, but, honestly, I think it’s going to start with the justice system. That’s what’s going to fix this problem — these police officers being held accountable. And at the voting polls, we have to vote and put the right people in those leadership positions. Those are two of the main things we have to do, and there has to be some kind of accountability for these people killing unarmed black men — not even just an unarmed black man, but an unarmed human, period.”
SN: After the police officer stopped you driving home from the LSU game, what did you, Bailey and GeMonee say to each other?
“We just sat on the side. We were shocked. We didn’t know what just happened. That was one of the first interactions that we really had with a police officer. I just got my license. I’d just started driving. That was the first time I’d been stopped by a cop. I know a traffic stop shouldn’t be like that. If you pull me over, most of the time it results in a ticket or a citation or some kind of warning. He just pulled me over because I’m black and he searched my car illegally. Then again, I can’t even say anything bad about the South no more. I usually tell people, ‘Look, I understand racism, I grew up in South Mississippi.’ This stuff is nationwide. People can’t just sit here and look at Mississippi no more and say, ‘Oh, y’all live in the most racist place in the States.’ Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of that down here.
“[In his tweet, Marx] pretty much dehumanized George Floyd. If somebody from New York saw this tweet, they’re going to say, ‘Ooh, they’re racist in Mississippi.’ But people judge everybody in Mississippi by some idiotic remark from this guy…. We’ve got to get the right people in the leadership because just imagine the message that another police officer in the city of Petal is getting from his mayor. He’s pretty much saying it’s OK to do that, in so many words. Even the mayor in Minneapolis said [the way officers treated Floyd] was wrong. The mayor in Minneapolis said that the cops should be arrested and charged. So how are you down here trying to defend that cop when his own mayor said that he was wrong?
“You know what else I find interesting? Did you see the protests in Michigan at the Capitol? These people are protesting with assault rifles at a government building because they want the economy opened back up. Well, if you look at who’s been (most) affected by COVID-19, it’s not people that look like them. African American communities are getting hit hard. The minorities, the people of colour, they’re getting hit hard with COVID-19. So, (the largely white group in Michigan was) able to protest with assault rifles at a government building. But we protest because another unarmed black man got killed by a police officer — and look at how we get treated for protesting. Something is not right about that picture. And I’m not saying that I support the looting and the violence. I’m not saying that. But the reason for us protesting and the way they got viewed by the people in leadership positions was totally different.”
What has your experience been like in the game?
“Hmm. Me and JD (Blue Jays teammate Jonathan Davis, his brother-in-law) were talking about that the other day. Honestly, I’ve been fortunate enough. I’ve had some good teammates. Well, I’m going to say this: It’s tough to be racist and play baseball because you have people from the Dominican Republic, from Venezuela, from Mexico. You have blacks. You have whites. So I can’t really say that I’ve had a bad experience. I’m not saying that I didn’t have people that offended me by some of the stuff that they said, or something that they support. But it’s tough to just openly be racist and play baseball. Now, I’m not saying that everybody is not racist. Don’t get me wrong. But playing baseball forces you to look at things a little different when it comes to different races. Being so diverse in the locker room and dealing with these guys, you start to see people for who they are and not how they look.
“I was fortunate. I played with a lot of good guys coming up in the Blue Jays organization. But as far as baseball, it’s no secret that there’s not many African Americans. You have people of colour but as far as African Americans, there’s not many. I think that’s why we gravitate toward each other, because there are not many of us in the game. Just overall, I don’t think I’ve had a terrible experience.”
The decline in the number of African American players in baseball is oft-discussed, and it’s really hurt the game. What needs to happen for that to change?
“Well, I can speak from my experience. I grew up in an apartment complex and kids, when they look on TV, they want to see people that look like them and they want to be like that. Most of the people that looked like me were playing basketball or football. Then you have a few here or there playing baseball, so that’s why it was so easy to gravitate toward those sports. Also for people in the black community, it’s easy to just get a football and just play pickup football. Or it’s easy to put a goal or a hoop out there and just play pickup basketball. To play baseball, you need bases, you need bats, you need helmets, you need balls. You need money. Even today, look at how expensive it is to play select baseball or travel baseball versus playing football or basketball for the school. It takes money and it takes equipment, and I know a lot of black families just can’t afford that when their kids want to play. That’s just from my experience.”
In recent days, have you had some teammates reach out to you?
“Yeah, I have. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me to check on me. Like, a lot of white people. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of good people around me in the past years. Me and Chase Anderson, we talk all the time. He reaches out to me a lot. He calls and he jokes with me all the time. Grich (Randal Grichuk) reached out to me and JD in a group message checking on us, and we had a good conversation. He was just letting us know that he stands with us — he’s willing to fight the fight with us. And it really meant a lot to us that there are some guys that reached out to us. And Grich, he’s like, ‘Man, I’ll never understand,’ because I pretty much told him that we really appreciate you being willing to fight this fight with us, and then he said, ‘We shouldn’t be having to fight this fight in 2020.’ But he said he’s going to stand with us, he’s going to stand behind us, he’s going to stand beside us, and he’s going to stand in front of us if he has to. That was a very positive move on his part.”
We like to think this is an American issue — that things are different up here. We’ve got work to do, too. What have your experiences been like in Toronto and Canada?
“Every time I come home, I’d be like, ‘Bruh, I just love Toronto.’ I don’t know if I just have a different experience from somebody who lives there, but all of my experiences have been great in Toronto. What I like about it is it’s so diverse and you see so many different ethnicities – that’s one of my favourite things. And I feel like you don’t really get judged just because of your colour, you know? If that’s the case, a lot of people are going to be getting judged because there’s a lot of people of colour up there. But I love the city of Toronto. It’s one of my favourite cities, for sure.”
Lastly, for people who want to do something, who want to make a difference, what can they do? What do you suggest?
“I would just say, listen to learn instead of listening to respond. Some people listen just to respond, you know? If you listen to actually learn about what somebody’s going through, and at the same time educate yourself on the situation, speak out when you see somebody doing wrong. I know that takes a lot of courage. It could be within your family. That’s going to take a lot of courage if you just sit there and tell your mom or your dad, ‘Hey, that’s not right.’ Those are the main things. And then don’t hide. Don’t have to feel like you have to hide trying to fight the good fight, fighting for what’s right because you’re afraid of what your friends would think or your family would think. If you just stand up for what’s right and verbalize it, speak out against it, speak out against what’s wrong, that’s a good way to help. Other than that, it’s a systemic thing, the injustice in the system. That’s one of the biggest keys — that and voting. Those are the main things that can help.”