LATER SUNDAY AFTERNOON there was finally quiet time inside a home that is so often chaotic. That’s what happens when you have two young boys, only three years apart, running around at full speed from morning to night. And in this brief moment where it was silent and still, Arjei Franklin had his oldest son sitting on his lap. The two made eye contact and dad’s mind began to race.
“How do I explain this to him?” he would later wonder aloud, from that same living room in Windsor, Ont. “I can’t make sense of it as an adult. There is hate in this world. How do I explain this to my nine-year-old? I don’t have the words for him. One day I’m going to have to have that talk with him and explain to him what others are capable of doing to other people. But not now. Not yet.”
Hours before, one province away, Shawn Gallant was at a Winnipeg hospital where he became a father for the first time. Amidst the joy of parenthood, and the relief that all went well with the pregnancy and delivery, Gallant felt a pang of anxiety, too. “What world have I brought my daughter into?” he thought to himself.
For years, through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood, Franklin and Gallant were known for what they did on the football field. Both from southern Ontario, both accomplished from the time they strapped on helmets – Franklin a receiver, Gallant a defensive back. Both crafted lengthy careers in the CFL. Franklin happens to be black and Gallant is white. Each have followed the same path in life away from the game. They’re now Constables with the Windsor and Winnipeg Police Service, respectively.
Like the rest of the world, they have watched and followed what has happened in Minneapolis and across America in the aftermath of the senseless death of George Floyd.
“Are we going to acknowledge what this is? It’s a murder,” said Franklin.
There is a credo in pro sports locker rooms: “What happens in here stays in here.” Often law enforcement resembles a team mentality, no matter which force you are a member of. But when the video emerged of what happened in Minnesota — of Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he gasped for air and pleaded for help, yelling, “Please, I can’t breathe,” before he became yet another needless death in all-too-familiar fashion — many in law enforcement have felt compelled to share their disgust.
“This situation is so polarizing that you have to voice your opinion,” said Franklin. “You have to declare how you feel about it. In my eyes, if you’re silent, if you’re not speaking against it, you’re probably okay with it. We are just as outraged as any other person should be. And if you’re not, you have to do a whole lot of soul searching and question your profession.”
“You’re so pissed at that officer,” Gallant said, referring to Chauvin. “You’re asking, ‘What are you doing?’”
“It tarnishes the whole profession of police officers around the world,” added Franklin.
“I take being a police officer seriously. I’m proud of it,” said Gallant. “Then this? It hurts. It literally hurts me and my friends.”
Often after an incident, let alone a death, the public plea made from law enforcement is to wait for the investigation to be completed, for all of the information to be obtained.
But in this scenario?
“This is so clear cut, none of that matters. Nothing that happened a minute before the video started rolling matters,” said Franklin. “The police officer doesn’t seem to be too worried about what he’s doing to another man. I’m infuriated about it as a human being.”
Franklin paused, then continued.
“I was wondering how the police community would respond. Are we going to acknowledge this was a murder at the hands of a police officer? And we have,” he said. “What’s taken place here is wrong and this man is murdered and there is a racial issue in America in particular.”
Gallant put it this way: “You see this, and it just sets us back so far.”
They each joined law enforcement with hopes that they could help make progress. As a student, Franklin studied the civil rights movement and the beliefs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On Sunday, Gallant spoke with reverence of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the city bus, in the pursuit of eliminating segregation. Franklin remembers being a young kid and hearing about the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.
Now the two former football players turned cops are watching America burn again, with police in the middle of it all.
“I hate seeing my friends knowing they can’t trust cops,” said Gallant. “I hate seeing protests turn into riots. None of this make sense. It weighs on me, big time.”
In their line of work — just like in their first job out of school — both Gallant and Franklin speak of the importance of understanding and respect. Gallant clearly remembers a summer night in 2008 — an evening out with defensive backs in Montreal to relax and bond. They were on a downtown sidewalk sharing a laugh when police approached the black members of the Alouettes secondary, asking if they had started a fight.
“I remember how that made us all feel,” Gallant said.
Franklin openly speaks of how inherent biases in society can affect police work. Even now, at the age of 38, back in the city where he put together an Alumni Sports Hall of Fame career at the University of Windsor and became a teacher before joining the force, he feels it in his personal life. It can be the smallest of things, like running an errand. Should he walk into a bank wearing sweats, Franklin says he’ll flash a big smile to the first teller he sees. “To cut the tension,” he explains. “That’s not necessary to do, but as a black man I feel that I need them to know I’m friendly. I’m not saying anyone has made me feel that way. Something in society has made me feel that’s necessary. That is heavy. I wear that.
“I think every black man, wherever they’re from, will [identify] with that. Nobody told me to do that, but it’s what I feel. What made me feel that? I don’t know. But I feel it.”
Franklin’s point is this: Everyone has biases. And as a police officer, you have to acknowledge them. Because upon arrival at a scene, you may immediately interpret a certain situation in a particular way because of those biases and choose a predetermined course of action.
When Franklin does that, “I tell myself to slow down and not feel it’s threatening. You have to do some soul searching.”
WHEN IT CAME TO FOOTBALL, race was rarely an issue for either of them. Gallant grew up in Windsor in a single-parent family in a lower-income neighbourhood. His mother, Linda, would send him outside to play with the kids in the neighbourhood. “You name the background – black, white, brown, Asian, whatever – we were in that community. We played together, we hung out with everybody,” he says. In high school, it was more of the same. As Gallant puts it, “The dudes into rap were cool with the rockers. We all just hung out.”
Sports became the ticket for the youngest of the three Gallant children to a better opportunity. He landed at Eastern Kentucky University, where all the football players stayed in the same dorm. They walked the same halls, ate in the same cafeteria, watched the same TV in the same common room. Some of the white players on the team had never interacted with black people; Gallant had black teammates who had never spent time with a white person before – until they were living together under one roof.
“In the beginning there was some tension, but then it went away,” he says. “Some guys just assumed things about others. It’s because they just didn’t know any different. Then we got to hang out with everyone and see these walks of life and it became great. We learned so much about one another.”
Franklin was a third-round draft pick by the Blue Bombers in 2006. Having grown up in Toronto, he wasn’t sure what life in Winnipeg would have to offer. Then he arrived and encountered diversity unlike anything he’d experienced before. Teammates from Saskatoon to South Dallas, Abbotsford to Atlanta. “Just guys who have lived such different lives, and yet we all got along. We were really like brothers,” he said.
Gallant played for Saskatchewan, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Montreal from 2000–2010. Franklin played in Grey Cup games for both the Bombers and Calgary Stampeders before retiring in 2013. What they learned in their encounters with fellow alpha males, in a highly competitive, higher-pressure environment, gave them hope of what real life would be after football.
“There wasn’t any of that racial tension. We somehow made it work right away,” said Franklin. “So if that’s how it was there, I know it’s possible out there in the real world today. There’s something about working toward the same goal.”
Said Gallant: “Put it this way: If everyone would take time out of their life just to get to know people, it would make such a difference. Break down the walls that say you’re left or right, or black or white.”
When football was finished, they became police officers, Gallant before Franklin. They speak eloquently of the responsibility that comes with wearing the badge.
But in the aftermath of Minneapolis, they know more than ever that scrutiny could be coming their way. That the actions of all police officers in North America and beyond in the coming days and weeks, and well after, will be critical in re-establishing a public trust.
“Once people have to acknowledge the problem of racism exists, that can be the beginning of the healing,” said Franklin. “But what’s so upsetting is that it took a tragedy, and an explicit level of hate, for the dialogue to begin.”
THE IMAGES, THE VIDEOS, THE TERROR of what is happening in more than a dozen U.S. cities is as unbearable as it is violent and tragic. It is the spring of 2020, and some of the snapshots are no different than they could have been in, say, Miami in 1968. Many want to point fingers as to how and why it has escalated to this state. Is it the fault of a president who has instilled zero unity or a plea for calm? Are those actually protesters smashing windows, or are others exploiting the situation? Why are some police firing rubber bullets and beating their own citizens?
Franklin knows people are angry. He sees so many wanting to protest peacefully. That a small percentage of the people walking the streets are likely responsible for the carnage left behind. Said Gallant: “One or two idiots ruin it for everybody.”
And it is then — when fists turn into batons, when a march transforms into an array of blood-soaked arrests — when control is lost. Gallant explains it from the standpoint of being in uniform in the middle of it all: “Once an incident gets to 120 miles an hour, it’s very hard to know what’s going on,” he says. “You watch TV and ask, ‘Why are cops doing this?’ Well, in that moment, it feels like a war zone.”
Gallant isn’t condoning the violence, nor is Franklin. Both look at it from the perspective of an officer on duty being told to go to work, and the fears as things escalate.
“I’m concerned for anybody out there,” Franklin said. “The thought of these police officers out there in these riots, who have kissed their kids goodbye before going to work, that’s scary. Imagining me in their situation right now, in this chaos and suiting up and being in harm’s way, that’s scary.”
Genesee County Sheriff (Flint, Michigan) Chris Swanson put down his helmet and baton and asked protesters how he could help.
The protesters chanted "walk with us" so the Sheriff joined — and walked alongside the protesters in solidarity.
— Rex Chapman (@RexChapman) May 31, 2020
In some U.S. cities, the police have listened. Take Flint Township, Mich. The County Sherriff there, Chris Swanson, pushed through police officers in riot gear to speak with demonstrators. Swanson told them, “I want to make this a parade, not a protest.”
He walked with the crowd that had gathered to protest police brutality and Floyd’s death. There was unity there.
“Across America, many police officers are showing they’re on the side of protesters,” Franklin said. “We’re as angry as you are. (But) we just can’t allow criminal activity to take place because you’re angry. That’s the truth. We want you to make your voice heard peacefully.”
Many are saying they have, to deaf ears. They point to Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players taking a knee to protest systemic racism among police; to LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and others who wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts after Eric Garner was killed; to how those players were told by so many to “shut up and dribble” or that they were disrespecting the flag.
“Kaepernick was saying, ‘I’m trying to bring awareness to this. I need you to see it the way we see it,’ and the response got deflected, and it keeps getting deflected,” said Franklin. “This is not a political thing. The murder of someone is not political. It’s a human rights issue. What so many of us – and I’m speaking as a human being in the black community here – are saying is that ‘We need you to see things from our perspective.’”
Franklin’s plea is this: “Let’s start to acknowledge the way the black community is trying to (help others) see things through our lens, instead of always being told, ‘This isn’t the place for it.’”
Gallant pointed to the work of some members of the NFL Players Coalition, that Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Stills met with police, and both sides spoke their peace. That they were trying to understand where the other side was coming from.
“I need people to see me in my cop uniform, but not in work mode,” said Gallant. “I’ll go to charities and camps and help. The solution is to get leaders that people look up to to focus on the problem and get positive action going. Let’s get to a solution together. Let’s get our leaders to make change.”
Gallant is the first to admit that it’s easier said than done. That he’s just one cop in Winnipeg and the issues are so much bigger and go far beyond his jurisdiction. He got a glimpse of it as a civilian out with some buddies that night in Montreal more than a decade ago.
“I’ve seen it, I’ve been there, and unless you’ve seen it and understand it, you don’t know,” Gallant says. “I’m so pissed at (Chauvin), in Minnesota.”
Franklin isn’t shy to admit he, too, is angry. About all of this. He wants those in authoritative positions to speak up and let the public know that it’s not acceptable either.
“The people in that moment with George Floyd that could have made change were the officers there,” he said. “One of those officers needed to say, ‘We got it, get up, I’ll take it from here, we’re okay.’ One of those officers had the ability to make the difference, and unfortunately they didn’t do that.”
Chauvin’s knee was on Floyd’s neck. That the three other officers did not intervene, in that extreme a situation, is what Franklin is still coming to grips with.
While today wasn’t the day to do the explaining to his two sons, soon, he’ll have to. He wants his boys to live in a community and be judged for who they are, to aspire to be whatever they want. Maybe it’s a football player or teacher or police officer like their dad, or maybe it isn’t. He wants it to be their choice. Who doesn’t want that for their family?
“It’s a lot. We’re going to remember this one,” Franklin said of Floyd’s death. “Hopefully it’s the last. Hopefully it’s the last one. But I wish it never had to happen for the conversation to start.”