Thabo Sefolosha vs. the NYPD

Last spring, the ordinary life of Thabo Sefolosha took a gruesome turn for the worse, all of it documented on video. The world was horrified but not shocked by the dramatic images of a helpless Sefolosha buried on the ground with police officers tyrannizing him. It served to regurgitate a familiar storyline: man beaten by police. In Sefolosha’s case he was a NBA player so he brought more sympathetic coverage than the average man of color who suffers the humiliation and painful aggression of brutality and no one really gives a damn but his family and #blacklivesmatter. The story gets buried in small type on some back page.

It may have started with good intentions when Sefolosha left the team hotel to hang out in Chelsea last April. Despite the criticism he took for going out after midnight, Sefolosha was simply doing what many NBA players do when bored, unaware of the complicated consequences that would change his life. Come morning Sefolosha would be in prison, his leg broken, his psyche damaged.

The Switzerland born, South African/Swiss heritage Sefolosha, was tackled by five cops and slammed to the ground, threatened with a baton, his leg broken, ligaments shattered, handcuffed, dragged limping to a police car, booked and jailed.

But before that moment, Thabo Sefolosha was a NBA player on a NBA team that would win 60 games. The Atlanta Hawks depended on Sefolosha to defend the other team’s best player and to drain some three’s. He was a key piece to their team, the only Hawks player who had been to the NBA Finals.

And then that April night happened and Sefolosha was charged with resisting arrest, obstructing governmental administration and disorderly conduct. (The police were charged with nothing). The district attorney’s office offered Sefolosha and his counsel a plea deal: a day of community service, six months of staying clean and the charges would be dismissed. Sefolosha turned it down, preferring trial. His attorney, Alex Spiro, said of Sefolosha, “he’s innocent and he wants to be vindicated.”

The trial is going to take place on October 5th, just after training camps begin but it’s doubtful if Sefolosha would have been healthy enough to even participate in training camp. The case, as most cases do, will live and die on witness accounts. The police’s version of events is that Chris Copeland and a female companion were accosted by a stranger and stabbed which caused chaos. When the police arrived there was a situation they had to sort out. Sefolosha and teammate Pero Antic wouldn’t disperse. And so they used force.

Sefolosha’s defense all along was that he did nothing wrong. He did not impair the police’s ability to do their job. As a bystander, he was more than several feet away and that in fact, the police used excessive force in a situation that was already wrapped up. He is fighting this fight on principle and he has a video to back up the claims of excessive force and brutality.

Of course the NYPD isn’t an outlier here. They have an institutional history of being implicated in instances of excessive force: Eric Graner (choked), Ramarley Graham (shot in his bathroom, unarmed), Sean Bell (shot and killed at his own bachelor party), Timothy Stansbury (killed, mistaken identity), Ousmane Zongo (killed, mistaken identity), Amadou Diallo (shot 41 times, unarmed), Abner Louima (sodomized in custody), Nathaniel Levi Gaines (shot in the back, unarmed).

This is the world Thabo Sefolosha entered last spring. It is the world that Sefolosha is betting on to give him justice, clear his name, and reorganize the NYPD’s culture so standing outside of a nightclub isn’t a license to get beaten and almost lose your career.


photo via llananba