It was a Not Guilty verdict that cleared the name of Thabo Sefolosha and produced tears. After a nightmarish six month wait to prove his innocence, the Atlanta Hawks guard/forward can now appreciate what was lost: 184 days. A broken leg, surgery, a missed playoff run, a possible delay to the start of the season were all part of the catastrophe. Sefolosha’s refusal to accept a plea was what brought him here to this four day trial and his innocence affirmed, not just in Manhattan Criminal Court, but forevermore as this story is one more example of the racialized aggression of the NYPD.
The case was a document on profiling and violence but it was also a testament to the highly reactive nature of certain officers within the NYPD and the consequence of that reaction when they resort to force.
The trial took a turn in Sefolosha’s favor when he testified on his own behalf. He outlined the events of the morning of April 8th when Chris Copeland and his companion and a bystander were stabbed near the entrance of 1Oak club in Chelsea. Sefolosha’s verbal exchanges with an officer whose job it was to clear the crowd but who had singled Sefolosha out and began to contemptuously taunt him added detail to the chaotic circumstances of that night. The police’s contention was that Sefolosha impaired their ability to adequately do their job. He was a disruptor.
In actuality it was the police that interfered with Sefolosha. He was following orders to disperse, he had turned the corner and was on 10th Avenue but Officer Giacona continued his charged verbal assault as Sefolosha was walking away. Sefolosha, seemingly over the entire episode, tried to give a homeless man some money before exiting in an Uber car to take him and teammate Pero Antic back to the team hotel. Out of nowhere, though, he was tackled, assaulted, kicked, broken.
The charges against him were resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and obstruction of government administration. All the police could offer as a supporting fact was that 6-6 Sefolosha lunged at one of the officers and fell backwards. He caused his own injuries, he was responsible for his own violent predicament.
“The police don’t get to tell the defendant how to play basketball. The defendant doesn’t get to say where the crime scene ends.” (Frances Bartolomey, ADA)
Tarnished as a group because of their now defunct stop and frisk policies that targeted the poor and the non-white, and their repetitive use of force against their own citizens, the NYPD, as a whole, represent random justice, continued oppression and violence upon people with dark skin so a good part of this case felt like a masquerade where we were asked to believe something fictional. All along, the prosecution was trying to disprove a negative. The assault, the cuffing and dragging of Thabo Sefolosha to jail like he was a thug, the reframing the story so Sefolosha was the aggressor only resurrected past images of brutality by police that have driven the national dialogue this year.
Thabo Sefolosha’s case was of interest because of who he is in the world. He is special. He is a professional athlete. On April 8th, he was a member of a NBA team with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Thabo Sefolosha is of Swiss and African descent so he’s not native to this jagged system of inequality that has victimized thousands for over a century. His face is not the traditional face terrorized by police and yet it is. His face is not white.
Sefolosha knows more about the United States now than he did when he was drafted in 2006. He knows that in the United States if you have a unique talent you can, with hard work, become a success. He knows that professional sports has a religious appeal here, so much so that athletes are treated differently, their fame tilts towards an unbalanced scale, out of proportion. Athletes are beloved like a priest is beloved and in some cases hysterically so. Sefolosha knows what it feels like to get to the NBA Finals and lose, how heartbreaking that is, how it feels like something was stolen. He knows the ecstasy of playing one whole calendar month and not losing a game and having the best record and anticipating the playoffs. He knows, sadly, life is not fair. It is cruel at times.
We in this country have not transcended our history. We can shout hope from the rooftops but the plight of many United States men singled out unnecessarily, unable to rest on the privilege of whiteness, are the victims of force with terrible consequences not of their making, their lives in stasis.
It was just last month when Thabo Sefolosha turned down a cushy plea deal. All that was required was one day of community service. But that was an affront to him because he did nothing wrong and set out to prove it. He was rewarded with an acquittal. Yesterday at his trial, his coach Mike Budenholzer was the last to testify. He said. “Thabo is of the highest character.”
The Atlanta Hawks knew that all along. So did Sefolosha’s family, friends and teammates. Now the world does.
“I am happy all of this is over now and I can put this behind me, knowing my name has been cleared.”
photo via llananba