BLM campaign spurs Naomi Osaka into US Open Final

Naomi Osaka

The Black Lives Matter campaign is bigger than tennis player Naomi Osaka. By wearing a face mask with the name of a black person allegedly killed by police or a racist seems to have given her such a clear mindset on court that she has breezed into the US Open Women’s Final.

Naomi Osaka, who won the US Open in 2018, advanced to the final for the second time in her career with a 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 victory over big-hitting American Jennifer Brady. She will play the unseeded and former world number one, Vika Azarenka, of Belarus, who beat Serena Williams. Williams was again thwarted in winning a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title.

Naomi Osaka, who was watched by her boyfriend, rapper Cordae, wore a face mask bearing the name of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man who was shot dead by a police officer in 2016.

The Japanese tennis star, the highest paid female athlete, has been making a statement in every match for Black Lives Matter, wearing a different mask each round which features the name of a black victim.

Naomi Osaka wore a mask bearing the name Philando Castile in the semi-final, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain and Breonna Taylor in the previous rounds.

Osaka said that she burst into tears after video messages from the families of victims of police violence were played to her after her quarter-final win over American Shelby Rogers and felt like a vessel for the Black Lives Matter movement.

She told US broadcaster ESPN that she had been shown messages from Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, and Marcus Arbery, father of Ahmaud Arbery, two of the six names she has worn on her masks. They thanked her for using her platform.

“I feel like they’re so strong, I’m not sure what I would be able to do if I was in their position, but I feel like I’m a vessel at this point, in order to spread awareness,” Osaka said. “It’s not going to dull the pain, but hopefully I can help with anything that they need.”

In her post-match press conference, she elaborated.

“I was just trying really hard not to cry. For me, it’s a bit surreal. It’s extremely touching that they would feel touched by what I’m doing. For me, I feel like what I’ve doing is nothing. It’s a speck of what I could be doing. It was really emotional. I’m really grateful and I’m really humbled.”

The six people she has featured are:

Breonna Taylor

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka wears a face mask with the name of Breonna Taylor. Photo: Naomi Osaka / Twitter

Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was gunned down by police officers who had used a battering ram to break down the door to her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. Police suspected her apartment was being used to receive drugs by a gang based at a different address about 16km away. One of the suspects was an ex-boyfriend and she was one of three people named on the warrant.

Taylor’s name and a call to “arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor” became a rallying cry for justice in the Black Lives Matter protests.

In June, Brett Hankison, one of three police officers involved in the shooting, lost his badge. Louisville Police interim chief Robert Schroeder said his conduct that evening was “a shock to the conscience” and accused him of “blindly” firing 10 rounds into Taylor’s apartment.

The two other police officers Jon Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove still have their jobs and none of the trio have been arrested or charged. It is reported that the Kentucky attorney general is preparing to present evidence from the fatal police shooting to a grand jury as early as next week.

Elijah McClain

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka wearing a face mask bearing the name of Elijah McClain. Photo: Naomi Osaka

Elijah McClain was a 23-year-old black man who died in police custody in Aurora, a suburb of Denver, Colorado, on 24 August 2019.

The massage therapist, wearing a ski mask and listening to music on headphones, was walking, unarmed, when he was stopped by three white police officers. A district attorney report later said there had been an emergency call about a “suspicious person” matching his description.

A struggle ensued as the officers tried to search him for a weapon. On body cam footage, McClain can be heard saying: “I’m an introvert, please respect my boundaries that I am speaking.” An officer then says “he is going for your gun” at which point they wrestle McLain to the ground and put him in a chokehold. The DA report states McClain lost consciousness, was released from the chokehold and began to struggle to breathe again.

No charges were laid against the officers Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema.

Rosenblatt was sacked, but the two other officers remain employed on non-enforcement duties. No charges have been laid.

Ahmaud Arbery

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka with the mask honouring the life of Ahmaud Arbery. Photo: Naomi Osaka / Twitter

Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was jogging in Brunswick, Glynn County, Georgia, on 23 February when he was shot dead by two white men, a father and son. Arbery was unarmed.

Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, armed themselves with a pistol and shotgun and pursued Ahmaud Arbery in a pickup truck in Brunswick’s Satilla Shores neighbourhood. Gregory McMichael later told police he thought Ahmaud Arbery looked like the suspect in a series of local break-ins.

A 36-second video shot by another man, William Bryan, leaked online on 5 May, generated a global outcry that was swiftly followed by murder charges – 74 days after the killing. Bryan filmed it from his vehicle while he was driving behind Ahmaud Arbery, who was brought to the ground by Travis McMichael.

Greg and Travis McMichael and William Bryan have been indicted by Glynn County’s Grand Jury on charges including malice and felony murder. They have pleaded not guilty.

Trayvon Martin

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka said the death of Trayvon Martin made her feel scared. Photo: Naomi Osaka

Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black high school student, was visiting his relatives in a gated community when he was shot dead by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old man of mixed race, who was the neighborhood watch coordinator. Zimmerman shot Martin during a physical altercation between the two. Zimmerman, injured during the encounter, claimed self-defence.

Zimmerman was charged with Trayvon Martin’ murder but acquitted. The incident was reviewed by the Department of Justice for potential civil rights violations, but no additional charges were filed, citing insufficient evidence.

George Floyd

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka wore a George Floyd mask in her quarter-final match. Photo: Naomi Osaka

George Floyd, a black man, was killed during an arrest after a store clerk alleged he had passed a counterfeit $20 bill in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25. A white police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on handcuffed Floyd’s neck for a period initially reported to be eight minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd repeatedly complained of struggling to breathe until he lost consciousness and no longer had a pulse. His death prompted widespread protests across the US and overseas against police brutality towards black people.

Chauvin is charged with the second-degree murder of George Floyd. J Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao have been charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin.

Philando Castile

Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, was driving with his partner, Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter in Falcon Heights, a suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota, when he was pulled over and died from multiple shots fired by police officer Jeronimo Yanez of the St Anthony, Minnesota Police Department on July 6, 2016.

After being asked for his license and registration, Castile told Yanez that he had a firearm (Castile had a gun license) to which Yanez replied, “Don’t reach for it then”, and Castile said “I’m, I, I was reaching for…” Yanez said “Don’t pull it out”, Castile replied “I’m not pulling it out”, and Reynolds said “He’s not…” Yanez repeated “Don’t pull it out”. Yanez then fired seven close-range shots at Castile, hitting him five times.

Reynolds posted a live stream video on Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and the incident gained national interest. Local and national protests formed, and five months after the incident, Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. He was acquitted of all charges in a jury trial on June 16, 2017. After the verdict, Yanez was immediately fired by the City of Saint Anthony. Wrongful death lawsuits against the City brought by Reynolds and Castile’s family were settled for a total of US$3.8 million.

Naomi Osaka
Philando Castile was shot repeatedly when pulled over by police on Minnesota.

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