Animal rights protesters at NBA games rely on privilege

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Privilege looks nonthreatening and unassuming. It blends in long enough to be out of mind before it reveals its true audacity. It looks a lot like the animal rights advocates who have taken Minnesota Timberwolves games hostage, using the canvas of the court for their performative displays of protest.

There are three women at the center of the recent protests that have gone from zero to 1,000 during games played in Minneapolis and Memphis. The women have reached the playing court or the basketball stanchion, drawing attention to themselves for their cause: Timberwolves co-owner Glen Taylor and the mass killing of 5.3 million chickens to combat an avian flu outbreak at his factory egg farm.

The women have the financial wherewithal and backing of their group, Direct Action Everywhere, to fly into these cities, get into the arenas and pay for pretty decent seats. But the women also possess the White-passing skin tones—a far greater currency in America—that provide courtside access, no questions asked.

They have the privilege to protest.

Charles Barkley can laugh at himself. Kevin Durant still needs to learn.

Theirs is a freedom to casually walk down about 18 rows as Alicia Santurio did April 12 during the Timberwolves’ play-in game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Her last name comes from her Uruguayan father, and her mother is Italian. However most people in society would see her fair skin and, in their eyes, register her as an average White woman — only average in the sense that, of course, she must be harmless and law-abiding.

“I just walked on down and was just able to just walk by everyone,” Santurio told me this week, breaking down how she got onto the court once ushers, servers and even security had turned their attention to the action. “No one stopped me. Just walked right on by.”

Understand that an NBA game is a controlled environment. There are ushers standing at the top of the lower-level sections, making sure everyone who’s about to walk down has a ticket for those seats. There are arena security staffers dotting the sideline, baseline and courtside seats — a few of them even have their backs to the action, casting their full attention to what’s happening in the stands. And in the closest vicinity to the players’ seats, there is a cache of team or private security guards and city police officers.

The court is precious real estate. Early in this season, NBA teams treated credentialed media members as if they were carriers of a yet-undetected strain of the virus and limited their access to beyond the first row of seats, not on the court. And this restriction was in place before tip-off. So imagine how challenging it would be to get all the way to the court during the game.

Unless, of course, you possess the features that automatically eliminate you, in the biased mind, as suspect.

There was a time not too long ago when a Black man couldn’t get onto an NBA court even after the team he constructed won a championship.

In June 2019, the Toronto Raptors defeated the host Golden State Warriors, an improbable win with a first-year head coach and a mercenary star. And Masai Ujiri, the president of the Raptors, was the mastermind who had transformed the franchise from a forgotten outpost up north to the champions. When it was time to celebrate, he didn’t rush the court. He calmly maneuvered around the crowded baseline seats.

Ujiri was wearing a suit. He tried to show his credential. He identified himself as “president of the Raptors.” He still was cursed out and shoved twice by a police officer who acted as if excessive force was necessary to combat some raging trespasser.

During that Timberwolves play-in game, however, Santurio was wearing a black T-shirt that branded Glen Taylor as a chicken killer. She had no credential, just super glue. She made it all the way to the playing court and affixed herself to the surface before anyone noticed.

On April 21, Zoe Rosenberg threw a chain around her neck and fastened herself to the basket stanchion inside FedEx Forum in Memphis. On the Grizzlies’ telecast, the announcer said Rosenberg had been there for a while “and nobody noticed.”

By the time Sasha Zemmel tried to perform her stunt on Saturday — while wearing an outfit that resembled an NBA referee uniform, she would try to issue a “fine” and ejection to Taylor in front of his courtside seat — the Target Center staff must have been on high alert for protests. A heady security guard watched Zemmel and her associate, who took their two seats behind Taylor well after the game had started. Zemmel made it only a few steps to the court before she was tackled and dragged away.

Rosenberg and Zemmel were arrested and spent a night in jail, according to Matt Johnson, Direct Action Everywhere spokesman. Zemmel faces disorderly conduct and fifth-degree assault charges, while Rosenberg’s charges in Memphis include disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing, Johnson said.

Santurio, known as “Glue Girl,” went first and did not get arrested or charged with a crime.

“I was prepared. I thought for sure I [would] get arrested,” Santurio said.

Instead, two police officers took her to a downstairs room, where she declined to answer questions on the advice of her attorney. They issued her a one-year ban from the arena and escorted her out. Santurio was free, able to tweet about the incident.

She was never shoved or disrespected during or after her act. In fact, she said, arena security and Timberwolves guard Patrick Beverley were “incredibly kind” as her glued hand was setting on the court.

Sports can be a valuable platform to amplify an idea, and protests performed on the turf, the court or an Olympic medal stand can force people to sit up and listen. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising a fist, Colin Kaepernick taking a knee: These were protests against racial oppression that sparked conversation and influenced change. They were subtle acts, silent. Not the sledgehammer disruptions from animal rights advocates who want to save the chickens.

Then again, the group has achieved its desired impact: attention.

Santurio recognizes that her privilege as a woman who appears to be White has played a role in helping the brazen demonstrations.

Santurio, who also participated in protests against the killing of George Floyd, lives on the West Coast and tells the story of lending her truck to her brother-in-law, a Black man. For a year, she drove around the Bay Area with expired tags and never noticed. But the very day his brother-in-law got behind the wheel, he was pulled over by police.

“One hundred percent I agree … because I’m White-passing, I’m able to do more,” Santurio said. “If it was a Black woman or a Black man walking down [the arena steps]they probably would have stopped them, and it sickens me that people are treated like that.”

Santurio and her colleagues have leaned on their appearance to climb this stage and draw attention to their cause. In the arena, they have blended in as innocent fans. Even when Santurio and Rosenberg left their seats, they weren’t stopped because they still looked innocent. That’s the power of privilege.

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