New Lions safety Duron Harmon talked to the media about racism on Friday. The Detroit News
The first word that comes to mind for Duron Harmon as he searches his thoughts about the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last week -- and the horrific video of that death that’s now seared into the American conscience -- isn’t hard to find.
“Heartbreaking,” the Lions’ veteran safety said Friday on a video conference with reporters, following an emotional week of team meetings that had little to do with football.
“How could it not be?” Harmon said. “I told myself I wasn’t gonna watch the entire video. But you watch and you just see this police officer who had so much power and was gonna abuse (it) just to show how much power he had over that African-American man, George Floyd.”
And what he also saw, at least symbolically, is what he and some of the Lions’ African-American players and coaches have spent much of the last week trying to express in virtual meetings over several days now. Sharing their own personal experiences that Lions center Frank Ragnow, who lives in the Twin Cities suburbs less than 45 minutes from the scene of Floyd’s death, described Friday as “very eye-opening, very uncomfortable, and very real.”
Harmon said it was as if he saw himself pinned to the pavement with a knee on his neck when he watched that sickening video filmed by witnesses on the street. Then he saw his father, his cousins, even the eldest of his three sons, Chris.
“And then I’m trying to explain to my 8-year-old why George Floyd lost his life, and trying to explain to him -- as best as I can for an 8-year-old -- that this is not right,” said Harmon, whose wife, Christina, is expecting the birth of their fourth child any day now. “And it really brings you, at that moment, it brought me to tears. Because the world should never be like this. We shouldn’t treat people the way we treat them based off the color of their skin.”
And yet, Harmon says, he can rattle off countless instances of racism he has endured in his life. Like the time when he was 17, dropping his mother off at the entrance to a Walmart to do some shopping, along with his sister and a nephew. And instead of a polite request to move out of the fire lane, Harmon says, he got an expletive-filled demand to get out of the car.
“He didn’t like the way I looked to him, he felt like he was in control of the situation, and he had to let me know that he was the boss,” Harmon said.
Then there were the times where he was pulled over by police for driving “while black,” he says, during his seven NFL seasons in New England. Once it was ostensibly because of his “unfamiliar” out-of-state Delaware license plate. Another time he was only blocks away from the medical facility where Harmon -- who won three Super Bowls with the Patriots before being traded to Detroit in March -- was headed for an MRI exam.
“It’s so crazy, because after they kind of figure out who I was and what I do, the conversation obviously takes a turn,” the 29-year-old Harmon said. “Then they want to talk about the Patriots and us, at the time, trying to win a Super Bowl.”
That’s typically what an NFL team would be talking about right now, nearing the end of another offseason with training camp looming later this summer.
But in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, and with racial unrest roiling the country, Lions head coach Matt Patricia pushed aside the football playbook and opened the floor to his players the past week. Instead of X’s and O’s, the team talked about black-and-white realities. About the protests and the police. About racism and ideas to promote social justice as a collective group.
“We kind of took a break from football, because how could you worry about football when the country is in a crisis like this?" Harmon said. "This is so much bigger than football right now.
“And obviously with our team being predominantly African-American, Matty P did a great job of just giving everybody the opportunity to voice their opinions, voice their frustrations and for our white brothers to really, really understand what the African-American community truly goes through living in this country.”
Lions center Frank Ragnow met with reporters on Friday in a Zoom call. The Detroit News
Ragnow, for one, says the message was received, loud and painfully clear.
“Obviously, I was aware that there was a problem in this country,” said Ragnow, 24, who has spent the last few months at his family’s home in Victoria, Minn. “But I’m sick to my stomach, the things I have heard from some of my teammates and some of my friends and some of my brothers that they have to worry about and they have to deal with. …
“And that’s kind of been the theme this week in our meetings, is we’re all trying to learn, we’re all trying to listen, and we’re all trying to be together.”
For Ragnow and others, that has meant learning to truly understand the message behind a slogan like, say, Black Lives Matter.
“I feel like some white people get defensive when people say ‘white privilege,’” Ragnow explained. “White privilege doesn’t mean you’ve had a privileged life. Doesn’t mean you’ve had no trouble, no problems, no adversity. It just means your skin color hasn’t caused that problem.”
And while everyone understands those problems won’t be solved overnight, Ragnow said one of the lessons learned this past week is that silence is a form of complicity.
“It’s easy for anyone like me to come out and say I’m against racism,” he said. “But I have to be holding my friends in a private conversation accountable. I have to be holding my neighbor who might’ve said something that’s not acceptable -- I have to hold them accountable. Because when you’re in those comfortable situations, that’s when it comes out. And that’s where we as white people have to rally behind black people. Because that’s how we eliminate it. We eliminate it when people think they’re most comfortable and we make them uncomfortable with it and we make it not OK.”
Then there's the misunderstanding over what those silent protests were all about a few years ago, when players – including several with the Lions -- followed the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick in taking a knee during the national anthem before games to call attention to police brutality and racial injustice.
The resulting controversy, fueled in large part by President Trump’s incendiary comments, divided locker rooms and sent the NFL scrambling for cover. Even this week, comments from Saints quarterback Drew Brees on the issue sparked more outrage and backlash across the league. And more discussion in the Lions’ meetings.
“People spoke their mind, and African-American players told our other teammates why were upset by it,” Harmon said. “Why what Drew Brees said really hurt. Why it was heartbreaking at the time, and still is heartbreaking.”
They also talked about what comes next, and how the conversations they’re all having right now can promote “real action” and “positive change” as the Lions’ organization promised in a statement it released Wednesday.
“We still have a lot of time until we get to the season,” Harmon said. “Obviously, talking to different guys, we feel like there is still some type of need for a silent protest. To tell you what it is and what we’re gonna do, I can’t really give you that answer yet.
“But what I do know is, we’re at the time where that stuff really doesn’t even matter yet. Obviously, we can prepare. But what matters right now is trying to find ways to change and being in the moment. Trying to make sure we get justice for George Floyd, for Ahmaud (Arbery), for Breonna Taylor. That’s where the focus has to be right now.”
And where it has to stay, they all agree.
"It needs to continue -- it can’t stop here," Ragnow said, when asked how different things might feel when the team is finally able to be together again later this summer. "I can’t believe how many raw emotions I’ve felt through a webcam this week. But in person, I imagine it’s gonna be even more. And I’m looking forward to those discussions."