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. My last name was changed to Freedom and I used that freedom to speak out for the oppressed whenever it became possible. I was grateful for all the American freedoms that were afforded to me. Our freedoms allow us to think for ourselves, follow our dreams, and create our future.
After a chaotic day and nights of emotions following my citizenship ceremony I decided to make a Fox News observation that could be misinterpreted as me encouraging criticism of the government. It is a sacred right that the people have to be held accountable. This country is so special because it allows citizens to protest. 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.
We have at least the right to protest in the US to help move the 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. In authoritarian regimes across the world, violent suppression is a result of protest or dissent. China is trying to eliminate Uighurs and other ethnic groups from Xinjiang. The regime also systematically abuses the basic human rights Tibetans have and suppresses the civil rights of Hong Kongers. The Chinese regime imprisoned critics, and forced disappearances of truthtellers trying to shine light on COVID-19 since it broke.
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. Human rights activists know that we must work together across all lines to achieve justice. Like so many, I worry that my deeper message tends to get lost in the culture wars and polarization of today’s political discourse. We should lift one another up and make each other stronger. LeBron James’s leadership in supporting and giving back to progressive causes is something I admire greatly. However, I called LeBron James to bring attention to his silence as well as that of many others who are silent in opposition of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP), and their economic power. 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. LeBron is a representative of both Nike in China (which makes and sells a lot of shoes there) and NBA in China (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. Nike has opposed the Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act (a bill that would prevent Uighur products from reaching the U.S.), to make things worse. It has languished in Congress, despite wide support. For two years It was approved on December 8. Our leverage should be used to push for more from our endorsement agencies.
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. According to the U.S., it won’t send any of its representatives to 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. We really don’t want to send our players to a nation that abducts and imprisons people from other countries 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. The promise of America should be embraced.