Tierra Ruffin-Pratt does not have all the answers when it comes to ending police brutality and systemic racism in America. But the 29-year-old Los Angeles Sparks Guard does have a story to tell.
“For me, it’s just the same feeling as when my cousin was killed by the police a little over seven years ago. All the same memories are coming back up so it’s been an emotional week for me and my family,” said Ruffin-Pratt in a virtual press conference last week.
Ruffin-Pratt’s cousin Julian “JuJu” Dawkins was shot and killed by an off-duty deputy in Alexandria, Virginia on May 22, 2013.
Dawkins was Ruffin-Pratt’s best friend. The dynamic duo was born a month and a day apart, and grew up more like brother and sister than cousins. In fact, JuJu got the WNBA veteran interested in playing organized basketball as a youth.
When she’s in her old neighborhood, there’s a constant reminder of JuJu’s death. He was killed two doors down from Ruffin-Pratt’s childhood home. Unlike some law enforcement officers, Dawkins’ killer, Craig Patterson, was charged with murder. However, he was ultimately convicted on a lesser count of voluntary manslaughter and served six years in prison.
“I am very disappointed in the verdict,” said Gwen Pratt-Miller in December 2013 Washington Post interview outside the courthouse after hearing her son’s killer was only found guilty of manslaughter and not murder.
WHAT IS JUSTICE?
“Who knows what justice really is,” Ruffin-Pratt questioned, as America struggles to comprehend the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. “Is it that these cops are arrested and put in jail for life? Justice to me may be different for somebody else. The guy who killed my cousin got six years, he’s out already.”
Ruffin-Pratt believes constant discussion and awareness is key.
“I think the main thing is just keep it relevant, don’t let it die off in a couple days, a week, a month, because it’s something that’s been happening for a long time … This is a talk that we have to constantly have with ourselves, with people around us, with our kids, this is a constant conversation to be had,” Ruffin-Pratt told Winsidr.
Ruffin-Pratt believes the fight against racial injustice falls on everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender or orientation.
“Blacks, whites, doesn’t matter what race you are, what ethnicity you are, what orientation you are, just has to be a constant conversation that’s being had because it’s a constant and continual cycle that’s happening in America where a black person is killed, whether it’s by a white person or cop it doesn’t really matter. But after a couple of days, a couple of weeks, it kind of veers off and dies down, and then what? Everybody’s quiet until the next thing happens,” Ruffin-Pratt continued.
Ruffin-Pratt said she can sympathize with other families that have had to wait for justice. It took a week for Dawkins’ killer to be arrested, drawing parallels to George Floyd’s family in Minnesota.
“If a police officer or a white person kills a black person, they get to go home to their families until they feel like it’s okay to arrest them,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “But if the shoe was on the other foot, if it was a black person killing somebody, they go to jail immediately, so we stand on that. They haven’t given us a reason to change our point of view on that so, that is what it is.”
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE?
When Ruffin-Pratt was asked about specific laws and policies that should be implemented she said she didn’t think a law could change racism or police brutality. She suggested that’s something that must change within the hearts and minds of officers.
However, Ruffin-Pratt believes more careful consideration can be done during the hiring process for law enforcement with psychological testing and deeper background checks.
“All this stuff is a learned behavior… a lot of things are coming out about some police officers I’ve seen on social media like them, posting stuff on Facebook, years prior to them becoming police officers but that dirt was never dug up. And now things are happening like this,” said Ruffin-Pratt. “So, I think, just digging a little deeper into people’s lives before they just enter the force because anybody can become a cop they can pass a couple of fitness tests, knowing the laws in a book. What if you dig deeper into their history. What do they stand on, what do they really believe in.”
Ruffin-Pratt also has a challenge for the African-American community about being the change they want to see.
“We need more black police officers in this country. And it’s hard to say that because at this point it’s like who wants to become a police officer right now because of all the stuff that’s going on. All police officers are targeted not just white police officers, because like I said my cousin was killed by a black cop. So it’s all police officers you’re not checking into to the white cops but the black cops too,” Ruffin-Pratt added.
She said black police officers can provide a nuanced understanding of diverse neighborhoods. For some, that nano-second of nuance can be the difference between life and death.
“So, I’m not really sure what more and how much more they can do before hiring people. But I know there’s more that has to be done because this is a constant, constant cycle that’s been happening in this country,” Ruffin-Pratt said.
SPARKS PLAYERS ARE CONSTANTLY TALKING ABOUT JUSTICE
The LA Sparks have Zoom video conference calls twice a week with coaches and once a week with just the players. The organization has had various conversations between the team and the coaches and without the coaches in group messages.
With a historical perspective when it comes to protesting, Ruffin-Pratt said her teammates in LA stand at the forefront.
“They don’t mind stepping out like they did in the Finals [in 2017]when [the Sparks]didn’t come out for the anthem, so they’re big on standing up for what’s right and I think you’ll hear a lot from me, my teammates and those who are a part of the organization standing for this and trying to figure something out to make a change. We’re talking about it constantly.”
“I talk to Nneka (Ogwumike) everyday so we’re constantly talking about something and how we can do something in this world whether it’s individually, it’s collectively, just being able to do something to help,” Ruffin-Pratt revealed.
On Friday, June 5th, Ruffin-Pratt joined several members of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association as they took a visual stance against gun violence and racial injustice.
“I will #WearOrange… in honor of my cousins Julian Dawkins & Desmond Roseboro,” Ruffin-Pratt posted on Instagram.
“Also to raise awareness of the dangerous intersection of gun violence and racism in America — the number of black Americans who are shot and injured in gun assaults is 15 times higher than for white Americans. I support objectives of both gun violence prevention and racial injustice organizations to end the violence that disproportionately impacts communities of color,” Ruffin-Pratt added.
“I will #WearOrange… because gun violence in the era of COVID-19 is even more lethal,” added Nneka Ogwumike in an Instagram post in solidarity with TRP.
Just finished drawing out innocuous convos on the phone with Pops as he enjoys what he said was “a beautiful evening in the park” because of my reality as a black woman with a black father. He says I should join him next time; and I will …. fervently and fearfully.
— Nneka Ogwumike (@nnekaogwumike) June 3, 2020
HOW DO WE BRIDGE THE RACIAL DIVIDE?
“I think if we had to answer that, it’d already be changed,” Ruffin-Pratt began as she tried to answer the aforementioned question.
At some point, Ruffin-Pratt said there’s the feelings that black people have done all they can do to bridge America’s racial divide.
“A lot of white people ask what can we do to change, but you’re asking us when, how the hell do we know what y’all supposed to do to change, because we’re not in your shoes.”
“We can’t tell y’all what y’all need to do to change as white people,” Ruffin-Pratt continued.
Ruffin-Pratt said racism is a learned behavior that has been passed down for generations. She does not believe people are born that way.
Again, Ruffin-Pratt doesn’t have all the answers. But she’s willing to stand up and speak out for what is right and what is just.
“All we can do is say look yourself in the mirror. If you feel like you’re standing on the right side of justice, on the right side of racism, then you’re doing your part. But if you can’t look yourself in the mirror and say that, if you’re not teaching your kids the right way, That’s not helping,” Ruffin-Pratt concluded.