Three weeks ago, former NBA forward Tyrus Thomas arrived back in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to spend time with family, work out and train. He didn’t foresee his weeks being filled with protests, or meetings with community leaders, council members and police officers. After the death of Alton Sterling, who was shot by police July 5, and the killings of three police officers on Sunday in his hometown, Thomas struggled to find the words that best matched his feelings.
“It’s a weird situation,” Thomas said. “I still haven’t been able to formulate any words for what’s happened. Honestly, I think I know how I feel, but I can’t really articulate it. I haven’t really been able to process it all. Every day, something different happens, so my feelings and objectives kind of change. I went to sleep thinking of what I can do to help this situation, but it’s back to the drawing board after what happened [Sunday] morning.”
It’s a sentiment that has rippled throughout America after the fourth police-involved shooting since July 5. After news of the latest incident that left three officers dead and three wounded in Baton Rouge, Thomas took a good look at his aching city.
A native of Baton Rouge, Thomas, 29, attended McKinley High School before heading to Louisiana State University. After a single season, Thomas was drafted No. 4 overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2006. As a professional basketball player, Thomas was afforded the opportunity to travel the world, beginning his career with the Bulls in Chicago then continuing his playing time in Charlotte, North Carolina. Thomas even completed a stint overseas with a team in Germany before bowing out of the profession.
Although Sunday’s shooter wasn’t from Louisiana at all, Thomas believes the tragedies that occurred — from Alton Sterling’s death to the killing of the three police officers — have left his hometown shaken, exposing the desperate conditions the city is in.
“I think what happened with Alton Sterling, I think it exposed Baton Rouge so much,” Thomas said. “It really exposed how desperate of a city we are. We’re desperate for some good political leadership. We’re desperate for better community leaders, for better success stories. People don’t want to hear it, but we don’t have that many good success stories — realistic success stories. I don’t think enough people that defied the odds come back to support. They don’t remember that, most of them anyway, don’t remember that they were once those kids who needed just a little bit of hope or a little bit of a push.
“I understand the frustration and hurt from police brutality, but I also understand that attacks on the police aren’t the answer. Retaliation on a police officer isn’t the answer. So now on top of that, the situation with the police shootings, you still have a rippling effect. Whenever retaliation on someone begins to be the answer, I think that shows how desperate we are. I’m desperate to be acknowledged, I’m desperate to be recognized, I’m desperate to be thought of. I don’t think that many people will see it that way and admit it, but we need hope.
In the past few traumatic weeks in Baton Rouge, Thomas has been planning how he can better his community. Although none of his solutions are concrete just yet, he has been sitting in on meetings and questioning the best ways to unite and uplift a community in dire need of growth, development and understanding.
“I was in a meeting the other day with people in the community and police, chief of police, sheriffs and state troopers, and I asked questions about what are we going to do now to bridge the gap between the police department and the community,” Thomas said. “I think it has to be more effort put into bridging that gap. Where an officer doesn’t just ride in his car and patrol the neighborhood, but he gets out and walks and knows the neighborhood. The more the police knows the neighborhood, the less he has to patrol the neighborhood. As a community, we also have to stop being afraid of the police, but police have to treat us in a manner that we’re not afraid.”
Thomas is not the first athlete to become more involved in social justice issues in recent weeks. Athletes have been answering the call to be more proactive and using their platforms to be a voice for those who often go unheard. Thomas believes this is a start, but the action and activism will only be most effective when it is continuous.
“We have to stay conscious of the situation when the situation is not present,” he said. “When I say that, I mean when this dies down and whatever happens happens with the case, we have to still push for those same rights and same equality. I think when you push for a situation and it’s not out of emotion, anger and frustration, it’s great. [Sunday’s tragedy], more than anything, has been the straw that has broken the camel’s back. People are just tired, and hopefully the violence ends. I hope we realize this is not the way and that we have to have some unity. We have to hold each other accountable as citizens as well as police officers — just as human beings in general. If we can start to get to that — and that’s a big if — it would be a great help.”