Royce White, center, and demonstrators drag chains behind them during the Black 4th protest in downtown Minneapolis on July 4
Stephen Maturen—Getty Images
September 2, 2020 4:12 PM EDT

Former NBA player and Minneapolis native Royce White has emerged as an influential activist following the death of George Floyd. In late May, the 29-year-old led a peaceful protest that swelled into the thousands down Interstate 35. He now plans to walk from 38th St. and Chicago Ave.—the site of Floyd’s death—to the White House starting on September 11, crossing battleground states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania while advocating for economic investment in the Black community.

White, who’s also pursuing a career as a pro MMA fighter, spoke to TIME from Minneapolis about how he’s confronting his anxiety to lead marches through the streets (he was open about his mental health struggles upon entering the NBA), his criticisms of the current wave of athlete activism, and the idea of defunding the police.

(This interview has been edited and condensed)

Starting out September 11th, you’re walking to the White House. Could you explain for our readers why you are walking and what you hope to accomplish along the way?

It’s the right evolution of my role in this whole civil rights movement, as somebody who can do it, who’s able-bodied to do it, who’s young enough to do it, who has the time to do it. I do speaking engagements for a living. I played with the Big 3, which only happens 10 weeks out of the year. And I’m transitioning into mixed martial arts, which only happens four times a year at most, if you’re a pro-fighter.

When you have that type of professional life, then you make your own schedule. That’s one of the blessings of my life. I think that when we go on this walk, we will be able to touch millions and millions of people. I think we’re going to be able to have a lot of great conversations, and ultimately the President of the United States will grant me the audience because of the nature of the physical gesture of walking 1,100 miles. And if he doesn’t, then he’s saying something about himself ahead of this election.

We’re walking across the battleground states. Regardless of where you fall, it’s humanity versus time. That’s for all of us. It doesn’t matter what your beliefs are. It’s us versus time. Every last one of us. Humanity versus time, man. Humanity versus time.

What was your reaction to seeing Jacob Blake’s shooting?

The state has a monopoly on violence. That’s clear. That type of situation, where you’re shot in the back, and when you’re a Black man, the historical context of America makes it an especially egregious act.

We’ve had a national reckoning after George Floyd and other recent incidents. Still, after so much conversation and activism, when you see something like what happened to Jacob Blake, what does it say about where we are as a country right now?

It proves that these awareness campaigns are just not fruitful. And we’ve become a society where we think, because of the nature of being connected online, that awareness means everything.

And it’s just not true. Action means everything.

Can you speak a little bit about what you’ve done to take action?

People need to be on the front lines. Everything else is for naught, you know? People who are on the other side of the line will not be moved by us putting sayings and phrases and names on the backs of our jerseys. People who are on the fence aren’t going to be moved by it either. It’s just such a cheap form of action that people aren’t moved by it. That’s clear.

In Minneapolis, we took a plunge into the real form of activism. The real form of action. We really started to renegotiate the social contract between the state and the people. We’re going to continue to try and do that.

But even here at home I think that the energy has died down. So there’s a lot to be hashed out. I think we’re in a bad spot in this country, and it’s leaning toward the worst.

One of the things you did was lead a march from U.S. Bank Stadium (home of the Minnesota Vikings) shortly after George Floyd’s death. What spawned you to hit the streets in such a dramatic way?

Well, at that time, in response to George Floyd, we had a narrative that the protests in Minneapolis, the people of Minneapolis, were being barbarians and hooligans. And just anarchists in their revolt against the establishment here. I was out there the day where the [initial] protests escalated from peaceful protests to eventually the first flames being seen; I saw the escalation of violence on the part of the police. I’ve never actually been to a protest on the front line like that and seen—I’ve seen video of it, but there’s something different about it when you’re there in person and you see the police just indiscriminately lob tear gas, flash bangs, shoot people with rubber bullets, et cetera, et cetera.

And so, part of [the protest I led] was to show the people that we could come together in like-spirit and like-mind, and take dominion where we want. And we proved that. You know, you get 10,000 people together, the state’s monopoly on violence shifts pretty quickly. They’ve got to become overtly violent in order to dominate 10,000 people. And people need to understand that that’s the true battleground right there. That’s the true nature of where this fight has to go. The free people of this country and all around the world have to rise up in great numbers against the state, just to make it even. Not to overthrow. Our point was not to overthrow the government, our point was to say, ‘Look, you have not earned the right to have authority over where we go, what we say, what we do. And that’s why we’re going to be where we want, when we want, and how we want.’

Was there any violence at the protests you led?

There was a tanker that came onto I-35. Nobody was injured, but that was depressing. He claimed that it was an accident, that he just couldn’t slow his truck down in time. We were informed that the highway had been closed down. So we were pretty shocked that he was able to get through that far to the protest.

But ultimately, aside from that, we haven’t had one fight, one arrest, one fire, or anything of the sort, at any of our protests, which is another important point to note. Because the premise of policing in our country, and its over-militarization, would have you assume that any time you gather a large number, you have to have a police presence or else somebody’s going to get killed. Well, we’ve now done eight or nine protests and there was no police presence at all, and nobody’s gotten hurt. Nobody’s gotten into a fight. Nothing bad has really happened. So, I think what it does is it puts the onus back on the state to try and provide proof of why it is that we need to be over-policed the way that we are—why the police training and the way that they operate and their methods are so aggressive and just assume the violent intent of the people.

You can see that in the Blake situation. There’s a sense of urgency on behalf of the police that assumes the worst about the situations that they engage in. I mean, there’s this frantic urgency, and you know, it’s the way that they’re trained, too. And I’ve had former cops tell me that: “It’s the way that we’re trained is you’ve got to make it home.”

A lot of these cops are suffering from mental health issues. That’s no secret. And they’re going day-to-day with no rest, burning the candle on both ends, and they’re walking into situations and sometimes making them worse. I mean, that idea shouldn’t be seen as abstract or a reach. It just is.

Do you support defunding the police?

I don’t think the police need to be defunded. I think we just need to take back control of our sovereignty. Is this ‘defund the police because they don’t deserve to be funded by our tax dollars?’ Well, I understand that. Are we saying we should live in a society where there are no police? I wouldn’t agree with that. I don’t think that that makes sense. I think that the community should start to wrestle with the idea of what it means to police themselves, and what it means to have a bigger hand in the institution of policing. There should be a Community Watch on the police in every single jurisdiction. The question becomes, at the point of conflict, who still owns the monopoly on the violence? I would say that, no, we don’t need to defund the police. We need to modify the monopoly on violence.

How do you do that?

To assume that the state as a formal institution or as a formal entity inherently carries any more competence than the civilian on the street is patently insane. And that’s what we’re seeing: that in real-time, these individual officers and the badge that they carry do not carry the competence of decision-making that separates them from any regular American citizen. So why should the monopoly on violence lean in their direction? There’s a paternalism to it, right? It carries a special type of disgust for Black America because we have a lived experience where we know the dark side of the state. So we really can’t reconcile like, ‘Oh, this guy has a badge. Well, he’s probably just inherently competent.’

Athletes like LeBron James have received a lot credit for their activism. Do you think they’re doing enough?

There should be people outside of the bubble protesting. Why are you all back playing basketball in the middle of a pandemic? And on top of it, we have a radical situation with Black men, and these Black men are going to go back and play basketball? Just to square the bottom line? Are we going to say that, what, basketball brings people together? Not enough for George Floyd not to be murdered.

It’s not a sacrifice to put these things on the back of your jersey when the NBA laid it out ahead of time to say we’re going to allow people to put it on the backs of their jerseys. That’s not a thing. In my letter to Kyrie Irving, I said what they should ask for is that the owners contribute $15 million from each organization to put a Black Bank in their city. That would have been change. That would have been restructuring Black America’s economic fabric in an instant.

So somebody like LeBron, for example, if he wanted to speak to the importance of self-sacrifice, the thing for him to put on the back of his jersey would have been Free the Uighurs. That would have been profound. That would have brought an immediate shape of self-sacrifice to him in this moment. Somehow, we’ve gone backwards. And what makes this so bad in sports is that we associate ourselves with the self-sacrifice and discipline to push our bodies and push our being to the limit…but we don’t bring that same approach to our activism. Because if you were bringing that same approach to your activism, you wouldn’t begin post-game interviews muttering through why the Blake case is such a problem. You’d be out there. You can’t miss a game in the bubble to go and protest? What are we talking about? Muhammad Ali would not have sat idly by and fought while there were a million Muslims in concentration camps. It wouldn’t have happened.

What we’re asking you to do is to uphold the same value structure across the board, and especially in the places where you stand to gain the most. You’ve been silent there. And so we can’t overlook that. We can’t overlook all these other media institutions that have propped him up as the leader of this pro-Black movement.

What did you think of the NBA players striking in protest of the Jacob Blake shooting last week?

I think what Giannis [Milwaukee Bucks player Giannis Antetokounmpo] and the Bucks did, it sent the message that if players actually do sit out, that the institution comes to halt. But the other players would have had to fall into the fold, and they didn’t do that. They didn’t show up. CP3 [Chris Paul, President of the NBA Players Association], he didn’t show up. LeBron James, he didn’t show up. Hell, Barack Obama didn’t show up in that moment. The entire NBA playoffs should have been done.

What does it say that George Floyd has been killed, they decided to go back and play in the bubble in the first place after one of the most disgusting police murders that we’ve seen to date? OK, we go back to the bubble, we put the name on our jerseys, Jacob Blake gets shot in the back, now we’re going to say, ‘OK, let’s sit a game.’ But we all didn’t say let’s sit a game, just the Bucks did it. Then everybody went back to play days later. Now the bad part is, you’re having the conversation about what did it really do? Let’s just say another George Floyd happens tomorrow. Are they going to sit out then? What would be enough for them to sit out the season? And if that is not enough for them to sit out, then they’re not fit to lead this movement.

This whole notion that you lose the biggest platform that you have if you don’t got back and play, actually fortifies what Laura Ingraham said about shut up and dribble. LeBron and Obama are actually saying that if we don’t go and play, we have no voice. We can’t actualize any change. We can’t be as effective. It’s a racket on two fronts. Number one, if you believe you need the system that oppresses you to actually create change, then you’ve already lost. Number two is, why in the world would they actually believe that if LeBron James doesn’t go play, that TIME magazine wouldn’t come follow him back to Akron, Ohio? He might get more press coverage than he’s ever gotten if they decided to leave the bubble.

You’ve been open with your experiences with anxiety during your basketball career. Kevin Love, who has come out and shared his own experiences, tweeted his thanks to you. How have you been able to manage mental health while taking on responsibility as an activist?

Self-sacrifice, right? It’s not easy. You’ve got 20,000 people and you feel responsible for them. And not in a paternalistic way, just in a leader-way. Like, if I hadn’t organized this, we wouldn’t be out here in this number and in these places. So, if something ultimately does go wrong, it doesn’t all fall on you. But there is a level of responsibility that you have in that. So, it is an anxious situation to be a leader. But at the end of the day, it absolutely has to be done. And facing my own anxiety is actually where the chain has moved.

What do you mean by that?

Well, I mean me actually saying to myself and having the internal conversation to go, ‘This is going to make me super-anxious. This is against everything that I would come up with for a wellness plan.’ It wouldn’t be in my wellness plan to march 20,000 people through downtown, with the security detail, with long guns. Open carrying. That wouldn’t be a part of my plan to just live a sound, safe, productive, anxiety-free life.

But it has to be done because we are where we are. And all respect to Kevin Love. I am all for people sharing their stories. I thought it was such an egregious thing for him to win the Arthur Ashe Award for mental health.

Why?

Well, number one because Arthur Ashe was a Black man. Number one. And not that you can’t be a white person to win an award named after a Black man. But there are actually Black men—myself—that actually put my career on the line to talk about mental health. And didn’t get a red carpet rolled out and have America’s media, say, ‘Wow, this is so courageous what this guy is doing.’ What was the difference between what I said and what Kevin Love said? The only difference is that I said it at the beginning of my career. He said it 10 years into his.

And on top of that, the difference was I challenged the status quo. I challenged policy. He didn’t challenge policy. And it’s not by accident that the American media would prop up a figure who wouldn’t challenge the fundamental structure of society. That wasn’t a light switch that he turned on. It was a light switch that the media helped shape like he was turning on. They helped shape it, like he was turning it on, and that’s patently dishonest. We can’t have true change when we have that type of dishonesty.

And if you go back and you look at the collective bargaining agreement, they still don’t have a real concrete mental health policy.

Where does the NBA fall short?

Where they fall short is, you can’t tell a body of players to use the mental health services you’re now mandating teams have, when they are culturally aware of players in their recent history that were blackballed for talking openly about their mental health. And then tell them at the same time that you can’t promise them that mental health won’t be used against them in their free agency. Adam Silver said that. What he should have said is, ‘I can’t decide for these owners what they do with the information regarding your mental health. But I can say as a leader of this institution, if they mishandle that information or if they weaponize that information against you, in an economic way, I will bring down the full wrath of the NBA office on that organization. And on that individual.’

Kevin Love proved that you could actually play at a high all-star level from a productivity standpoint with anxiety. What I would have done is gone, ‘OK, wait a minute. What’s been the narrative so far? OK, that people with anxiety or mental health problems in our league are unreliable and we associate them with character issues of all sorts? And that they can’t be trusted to be there or show up? OK. Well, I’ve been showing up and I have anxiety, so does that change the cultural thinking?’

Then people are starting to come out ad nauseam talking about their mental health struggles, and most of whom were high-caliber, productive players. And not once has the NBA come out and said, ‘You know what? Internally, our cultural thinking that mental health issues make you a liability in performance was off.’

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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