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Why I Stand Up for Freedom in America—And Around the World

6 minute read
Freedom is a NBA player and human rights activist

In my first weeks as a U.S. citizen, I’ve experienced the full richness and contradictions of what it means to be an American. I changed my last name to Freedom, and then made the most of that newfound freedom by continuing to advocate for the oppressed and speaking truth to power at every opportunity. Along the way, I made a point of expressing gratitude for the freedoms U.S. citizens are entitled to. We are free to speak our minds, pursue our dreams, and have the opportunity to forge our destiny.

Unfortunately, amidst a whirlwind of emotions and sleepless nights following my citizenship ceremony, I made a comment on Fox News that has been misinterpreted as me discouraging criticism of our government. I would never belittle this sacred right to hold the powerful to account. The freedom to engage in protest is precisely what makes this country so great. But I also understand that this country was built on slavery and racial injustice—a legacy that lives on today. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, I was among the first in the NBA to march and speak in solidarity with our brothers and sisters fighting for overdue systemic change.

In the US, we at least have the ability to engage in such protest to move our country forward. I come from a country, Turkey, where authorities tried to kidnap me, forced my family to publicly disown me, tortured my father in detention, and ultimately revoked my passport, stripping me of my home and my identity—all for speaking up for human rights. The very expression of dissent and participation in protest is met with violent suppression in authoritarian regimes around the world. In China, the regime is trying to erase Uighurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang, has systematically abused the basic human rights of Tibetans, and suppressed the civil rights of Hong Kongers. The Chinese regime jailed its critics and forcibly disappeared those truthtellers who tried to shed light on COVID-19 when it first broke out.

That’s why I use my platform to speak out and to offer my unique perspective on the immeasurable value and responsibility that comes with our many freedoms here.

But I don’t speak from either the right or the left. I’ve lived in five cities across this beautiful country in diverse communities, from Portland, Utah and Oklahoma to New York and Boston, to Simi Valley, California and Lexington, Kentucky. As a human rights activist, I know we need to work across divides with all allies in the struggle for justice, regardless of political background. Like so many, I worry that my deeper message tends to get lost in the culture wars and polarization of today’s political discourse. I want us to lift each other up, make each other better. I have immense respect for LeBron James and his leadership in giving back and supporting progressive causes. But I called him out to raise awareness about his silence and that of too many others in the face of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its economic clout. Instead, we must stand up against the CCP’s domestic mass atrocities, including the unconscionable forced labor industry behind the very shoes and clothes we wear and promote. I named LeBron specifically because he represents both Nike, which produces and sells huge numbers of shoes in China, and the NBA, whose business in the country is worth $5 billion.

But there’s a long list of celebrities, government officials, and corporations that prefer to stay silent on China to preserve their business deals. The CCP’s economic influence comes at the expense of the victims of its crimes.

As an example of this, I wanted to sound the alarm on Nike’s complicity in the CCP’s attempted genocide against the Uighurs because NBA players have the power to make a difference here. As of 2020, one of Nike’s largest shoe factories, Taekwang, has been documented as forcing hundreds of Uyghurs, mostly women, to produce millions of Nike shoes annually. A new report further underscores the high risk of forced Uighur labor within Nike’s supply chain. To make matters worse, Nike has lobbied against the Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act, a bill whose purpose is to prevent products made with forced Uighur labor from entering the U.S. market. The bill has despite widespread support languished in Congress for nearly two years before it was finally passed on Dec. 8. We need to use our leverage to demand more from our endorsement companies.

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The Freedom in my last name is our greatest strength—something that is not guaranteed in many countries around the world. Let’s tap into it and work together to make this country and world a better place. The U.S. has said it will not send its officials to the Beijing 2022 Olympics. We should continue putting pressure on corporate sponsors to follow suit and withdraw, including Visa, Alibaba, Allianz, Coca-Cola, Dow, General Electric, Intel, Panasonic, Procter & Gamble, Toyota, and Airbnb.

We, as athletes, should further push our governments, the IOC, and sporting associations to move the Games and suspend all other sporting activities hosted by a regime committing an ongoing widespread human rights abuses, as the Women’s Tennis Association has already done. Do we really want to risk sending our players to a country that disappears its own citizens and arbitrarily imprisons foreigners as bargaining chips? As the great, late civil rights leader, John Lewis, wrote shortly before his death: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.” We should heed his words and speak up for injustice around the world. We should embrace the promise of America.

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