I was coaching my girls’ basketball team when two young men in suits busted into the gym, grabbed the ball from one of the girl’s hands and took over the court. I had to act quickly, effectively, and responsibly, but when they referred to me as a
Ryan Stewart, Age 23,
Benicia resident since 1999
Before the pandemic hit, my 8th grade girls’ basketball travel team regularly practiced at the Benicia Community Rec Center on Friday evenings from 7 to 9pm. We rented the entire space. There are three of us coaches and ten or eleven 13-14 year old girls. I am the only Black coach. The other two are Filipino. The girls are an integrated group.
The incident took place in February. The door was open to allow a breeze and so that parents, friends and family members could freely come in to watch the girls practicing. There were 25-30 people in the gym when suddenly two White men in their mid 20s, one of whom I recognized from high school, rushed onto the court. They grabbed the ball out of one of the girl’s hands, and began to monopolize the space. They were not connected to our team in any way. They were dressed as though they had just attended a formal function. And they smelled of alcohol.
There were a few moments of confusion before we all realized what was going on and started to mobilize. I watched as one of the other coaches tried to get them to leave, but they ignored him. Then I walked over to where the men were starting a game of one-on-one and asked for the ball back. I calmly told them we have the court reserved for practice every week at this time, and that they couldn’t be here. They laughed and asked why I had to be that way. They were clearly drunk. I told them they had to leave. Then they tried a different tactic. “Come on - We’ll play you for the court space. We win, and you give us the court. You win and we leave.” I wasn’t interested in bargaining. We had paid for the court, and it was our right to use it. Again, I asked them to leave. This time they told me to get my “fat ass” away from them.
I’m a big guy. I am 6’10” and weigh close to 300 pounds. Most people don’t mess with me. I don’t let insults like “fat ass” bother me. I let that comment slide, and since they insisted on continuing to interfere with our practice, I used my bulk to nudge them towards the door. It wasn’t until one of them said, “Why do you “N’s” always have to be like this?” that I lost my composure. That got me. The “N” word is so repulsive to me and so insulting, I had to check myself. I asked the man to repeat what he had just said, just to be sure I heard him right. He fired the same words back at me.
I hate hearing that word from anyone who isn’t Black themselves, especially when it’s being used as a deliberate racially-based insult. It brings back the collective demoralizing history of my people. I was furious.
For a moment, I felt conflicted about what to do next. I was ready to punch the man who provoked me with that word, but I had to back down. First and most importantly, I was in charge of a group of young, impressionable girls. They saw me as a role model, and me punching someone for something he said wasn’t what they needed to witness. Secondly, I was twice as big as these guys, and I’m a trained athlete and martial artist. I could really hurt them. Lastly, and just as important, I knew they could press charges if I physically assaulted them. As a Black man, I am always concerned that I might be considered guilty by the police, the courts, and the community without much consideration to my side of the story. That could affect my job, my standing in the community, and my future. With great reluctance, I knew I had to let it go.
With the help of the other coach and two of the girls’ family members who jumped in, we were finally able to get the disrespectful intruders out of the gym and onto the street. They continued to argue and hurl insults while standing in front of the Benicia police station. Finally they gave up and walked away, taunting us as they moved down L Street towards the east side. The entire incident lasted about 10 minutes. It took me as long to calm down and report to the police station.
My initial experience in the station did not go well. There was a woman at the front desk who had witnessed much of the scene through the window. The automatic camera had filmed it. Yet, she claimed she thought we were friends messing around with each other. She also said I should have reported it in the moment, rather than waiting until it was over, but I had been busy dealing directly with the problem. Her reaction felt very dismissive. It didn’t help that I just was verbally insulted with serious racial slurs, and that she was White. She refused to call someone to go after the two men, even though we could positively identify both of them. Plus they were on foot, not far from the station. They would have been easily detained, and there were about 30 witnesses to support my story. I left the station frustrated and still angry.
The incident has a just ending. As I was driving home, I called my dad. It helped to have his support and perspective. The next day, we contacted the police chief, who took the matter seriously and responded with compassion and professionalism. He took my report, apprehended the two men, fined them for trespassing, and banned them from the City Rec Center. A personal apology would be welcomed, but overall I’m pleased with the response.
In hindsight, I’m proud of the way I handled that. No one should be subjected to deliberate and disrespectful harassment. And no one should have to harness their rage over a word. But that’s the reality. Someday I hope we can all put it to rest and never have to relive the anger and shame that the single word “N” conjures.