Four-time Olympic champion Michael Johnson has revealed that the fallout from the death of George Floyd has convinced him that the world’s leading sports athletes must use their platform to call for change louder than they ever have done before, and blamed Donald Trump for fuelling the divide that has led to the disturbing scenes across the United States over the last week.
Floyd was killed on 25 May while in police custody, with a video revealing a policeman forcing his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes while he was handcuffed and on the ground. The incident was the latest in a long line of controversies surrounding police brutality of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals, following the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, as well as one in New York’s Central Park where a white woman who was asked to leash her dog in a restricted area called the police and accused an innocent black man of attacking her.
Widespread protests, both peaceful and violent, have erupted across the United States, while police have used aggressive tactics and brutality to counter the large gatherings. On Monday night, disturbing scenes outside the White House were witnessed while President Trump was threatening to deploy the military on protesters, triggering a furious response that he was fuelling the situation instead of easing it.
Former sprinter Johnson was asked about the situation and, as a prominent black American sportsman, whether he felt that those in similar positions as him should feel required to speak out against racial injustice.
“If you had asked me that same question – and I’ve been asked that question for years about whether or not athletes have a responsibility or celebrities and prominent people should speak out on these issues – my position has always been if you feel you can help, and you feel compelled to do so, then do so,” Johnson said on the Will Greenwood Podcast for Sky Sports.
“But no one should pressure other people into doing something that they’re not comfortable with.
“Today, my position is completely different. If you are silent you are complicit. We are at that point, you have people out there, young people, old people, black people, white people, Asian or Hispanic and all different cultures and backgrounds out there fighting, out there making sure that this issue is being brought to prominence to where everyone is paying attention to what’s really happening in this country and how people are suffering.
“If you have a platform you owe it to those people, you owe it to those whose lives have been lost, you owe it to our ancestors who fought through the civil rights movement back in the sixties. You owe it to all of them. If you have this position, like I did, you have a prominent position and you’ve benefited from the hard work of all of those people to have what you have, you owe it to all of them to not be silent.”
Johnson, who won both the 200m and 400m gold medals at the 1996 Olympics after success in the Barcelona 1992 4x400m relay and went on to retain his 200m title at Sydney 2000, also took aim at the US President and the process that got him elected in the first place.
Though Trump won the 2016 US presidential election against Hilary Clinton by a margin of 304 to 227, he trailed the popular vote by nearly 3m, with more numbers voting in Clinton’s favour.
“We have a president who has sought to divide this country, and has been quite successful in bringing about a great deal of division across the country, and we have a very unique situation here in this country in terms of how we elect a president,” Johnson added.
“The majority of the people, in terms of the volume and sheer numbers of people in this country, did not vote for this president, but we have a system here with the electoral college that allowed him to become president even though most people in this country did not want him to.
“I say that because most people in this country, despite the fact that he is our president and he is dividing us and supporting a lot of that element, most people in this country want to see equality. They want to see people who are poor and disadvantaged and who this coronavirus has been affecting disproportionately, like minorities and poor people, they want to see them taken care of.
“Most people want to see that, but we unfortunately have this situation which people are sick and tired of and I think that this is a moment that very well could serve to reverse a lot of that. But people see that in this country we’re very much on a track that they don’t agree with, not just black people but white and many other backgrounds see that we’re on a track that we’re not happy with.”
Johnson’s comments coincided with ‘BlackoutTuesday’, a social media campaign that aimed to show solidarity by posting blank black pictures on Instagram and Twitter, yet also attracted criticism as it appeared to silence the protests which has helped to publicise the racial injustice being enforced by areas of the US police force.
In response to that scenario, Johnson stressed that it is acceptable not to know what is the right thing to say on the matter, but rather than risk expressing the wrong view that hinders the fight for racial equality, people should “sit this one out” if they struggle to understand what the Black Lives Matter movement really stands for.
“It’s hard for people to understand, I get that. If it’s not obvious to you I think that’s understandable, but one of the best messages I’ve heard is ‘if it’s not obvious to you what’s going on and it’s difficult to understand, sit this one out and don’t try to judge it. Don’t try to impart your opinion on it, some things are just difficult to understand and just accept that and sit this one out if it’s not obvious to you and you’re struggling to understand it.”