When strung together, four monosyllabic words make one of the most powerful sentences in the English language: “Not in my name.”
It’s what protesters shout when US bombs are dropped on civilian populations thousands of miles away. It appears on the signs of anti-war feminists who refuse to accept a war in Afghanistan for “women’s rights.” It is what brave Jewish demonstrators chant when Israel says it must occupy and oppress Palestinians for our collective safety. It is a call for political clarity and justice in the face of ugly, manipulative opportunism. Now, it is Kyrie Irving’s turn to say those four words.
On Sunday, more than 100 protesters showed up at the Barclay’s Center before the Brooklyn Nets home opener to hold an anti-vaccine demonstration on behalf of All-Star guard Irving, chanting, “Let Kyrie Play!” For those living beneath the largest nearby rock, the All-Star guard hasn’t played a game yet this season for the Brooklyn Nets because he refuses to get vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus, and as a player in New York City, he therefore cannot work in the team’s facilities. Irving has responded to the move by proclaiming himself a victim of a great injustice—going so far as to call himself “the voice of the voiceless.” His self-appellation is ironic, because if there is one thing Irving is not, it is voiceless. His every utterance has been reported by a thirsty media who would rather tell his story than state the fact that more than 95 percent of NBA players have decided to get the vaccine.
As happened at a similar anti-vaccine demonstration several weeks back in New York City’s Union Square, things got ugly. Protesters stormed the arena and attempted to break through the doors.
Whatever Irving’s motivations, it is certainly his right to refuse a vaccination. Given the history of this country and the lies that pour out of Washington, mistrust and skepticism are understandable. But it is also New York City’s right to say that his action has consequences and the Nets’ right to say that the safety of team employees and their children matter more than Irving’s personal beliefs. Despite this, his stance has had a ripple effect that one cannot imagine he ever intended.
First, right-wingers like Ted Cruz, Tucker Carlson, and Don Jr. rushed to extol Irving as a principled hero of their movement. This was not too surprising. These vaccinated politicians and media millionaires do not care about community health, and they also hate the NBA because of the players—Kyrie included!—who have stood with the Black Lives Matter movement. When these political opportunists embraced Irving, that would have been a good time for him to utter those four magic words, “not in my name.” Then, the underbelly of open, organized online fascists started to hold him up with reverence: the Bannons, the Candace Owens, the YouTube insurrectionists, the anti–“critical race theory” thugs, the people who have an open political project that involves celebrating the January 6 efforts to overturn the last election and an even bigger project of using violence to tear down any semblance of popular democracy. They are the ideological backbone of the backlash that has been coursing through this country since the massive 2020 demonstrations following the police murder of George Floyd. Kyrie Irving, a man who bought a home for Floyd’s family, is their new hero. As soon as these folks started to shower Irving with the affection they usually have only for missing white children, he should have said “not in my name.” He didn’t. But hopefully after yesterday’s melee, he will.
Will this happen at future Nets home games? What about when the team is on the road? How long before someone gets hurt in the bloodlust of our current political moment? Irving now has an urgent responsibility to say those four words, “not in my name,” as loudly as possible. We know that if it weren’t Irving, these people would find some other issue to get enraged and violent about. It’s the tenor of the times. But Irving could still fight for his name: the name that has been associated in recent years with issues like Palestinian solidarity, Standing Rock, and Black Lives Matter. Here’s hoping he does. Here’s hoping that Irving wants more for his legacy than being a rallying cry for those who would crush every cause he claims to hold dear.
Let’s hope we hear soon from Kyrie Irving. It he stays silent, the only conclusion would be that he is happy to see these forces use his name to advance a broader social agenda of bigotry and reaction.