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Ex-Wildcat Jawann McClellan, now a Houston police officer, reflects on relationship with George Floyd
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Ex-Wildcat Jawann McClellan, now a Houston police officer, reflects on relationship with George Floyd

Former University of Arizona standout grew up in same neighborhood as Floyd, whose death touched off protests worldwide

Former UA guard Jawann McClellan played at the UA from 2004-08 before deciding to pursue a career in law enforcement.

George Floyd’s death affected Jawann McClellan on multiple levels.

Like millions of others, the former Arizona Wildcats guard watched the video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into the back of Floyd’s neck until he died, an act that has led to global protests and vows to change the system.

McClellan reacted with a mixture of sadness and frustration. As a police officer in his hometown of Houston, McClellan said he knew what Chauvin did was inexcusable.

“As police, we’re not trained like that,” McClellan said. “Obviously, when you put someone in handcuffs, that’s a wrap. It doesn’t matter if he shot your mom or whatever the case may be. When he’s in handcuffs, the fight is over with and it doesn’t matter what he did. … The video, from a police perspective, was all wrong and there is no way to justify it.”

Then there’s this: McClellan knew Floyd. They grew up as sports standouts in Houston’s Third Ward, though Floyd was 12 years older. Both played college sports, Floyd at Texas A&M-Kingsville and McClellan at the UA.

McClellan, 34, was dispatched to work protests throughout Houston following Floyd’s death, and was on patrol Wednesday when Floyd’s casket was taken to the cemetery.

McClellan joined the Star’s Wildcast podcast this week to share his thoughts on police brutality in the United States, his relationship with Floyd and experiences with law enforcement. His responses have been lightly edited for context and clarity:

As a police officer, how would you assess the events that took place in the U.S. over the last few weeks?

A: “It’s been very difficult. … When that video came out of George with the police officer in Minneapolis, it was clearly a modern day — as you would call — lynching that was caught on camera. The difference with this one is, unlike the other ones, he died very slowly and you could witness him losing his life. It really touched me, because he is my O.G. We’re from the same neighborhood, so I knew George from the time I was 4 or 5 years old. He went to Yates High School and that was the school I was supposed to go to, but I went to another school for obvious reasons, because you’re trying to get away from all that going on. So that really hurt.

“But like I said, the thing about policing, there are bad seeds in every job you do — whether it’s playing at the University of Arizona and there’s a bad teammate, or you’re in a law firm and there’s a bad person there. The difference between our bad seeds is they’re taking African-American lives right now.”

What was Floyd like growing up?

A: “George was (Rob Gronkowski) before there was a ‘Gronk.’ In high school, George was about 6-6, 225 (pounds), and I tell everybody, if he had my parents, then … he was a walking millionaire. That’s what we used to call him, ‘walking millionaire.’ He didn’t have the guidance that everyone from a two-parent household came from (had). George was very poor. I remember it like it was yesterday, his unit number, his project number. He stayed adjacent to where my house was. His project, which is called Cuney Homes here in Houston, he stayed adjacent and parallel — I could see his window. He was a very funny guy, he liked to crack jokes all the time and that’s just what he was. He never really messed with anybody even though he could with that size. He wasn’t a bully and, you know, we all have our flaws and whatnot; he’s not perfect, I’m not perfect, nobody’s perfect. But he was far from, what you would say, a criminal.”

McClellan worked protests as part of Houston’s police department.

What goes through your mind when fellow Houston native and former NBA player Stephen Jackson continues to use his platform to lead the charge to get justice for Floyd?

A: “‘Stack’ is the man right now. He’s one of the main people pushing the movement, if not the main person pushing the movement. This awakened everybody and we appreciate all the athletes and entertainers using their platform. It’s just sad that someone had to lose their life for everyone to wake up. ‘Stack’ is one of the reasons why I went to the University of Arizona, because I looked up to him … and everyone knew Stephen Jackson was gonna come to the University of Arizona had he got (a high enough) SAT score back in the day. But ‘Stack’ is really leading the movement. He’s for the people — but he’s not just for black people, he’s for what’s right and for all the people.

“That’s what people need to understand: All lives do matter, but until black lives matter, then all lives can’t matter. We have to get everyone on the same accord. … Unfortunately, you have people born in the (1940s) and ’50s, and I don’t know how you could change their mind, because you can’t change the way I was raised or you can’t change the way you were raised. Your way of thinking is already embedded in you. I don’t know the answer to how we can cause change. … Hopefully we can all get to a place where we can all just love each other and move on, because this is sad. Whether George was black or white — or anything, it didn’t matter what color he was — nobody should get brutalized by the police like that.”

Growing up in Houston, what was your experience with police?

A: “My mom and dad always taught me the rules and regulations of dealing with police. Actually, it’s a little different now, which is scary to think. People aren’t scared of police now like we were back in the day. I can remember when a police officer would walk in my direction, I would turn around and just go the other direction, because you didn’t know if you were doing something wrong at the time.

“Now, people aren’t scared of police, but more fearful of a traffic stop. If you got pulled over for a traffic stop, then maybe you’d get a little scared. … I was raised by two parents who grew up during the Jim Crow laws and they’re from the Deep South in Arkansas, so their take on a lot of stuff is obviously a lot different than some of the stuff I came up with, because I was a high-level athlete. I never experienced (much) racism because of what I could do with a basketball. … When that ball stops, then you could see what people really think about you.

“I think I’ve only experienced racism twice in my life, and one of them was at the University of Arizona. My freshman year, we were at a party and I don’t even know what happened, but something happened at the party and I wasn’t even in the party, I was standing outside. … I was handcuffed and stuffed in the back of a police car for four hours and wasn’t charged or arrested, but I couldn’t leave. I still can’t figure that one out, but it happened.”

What was going through your mind when you sat in the back of the police car?

A: “I thought my career was over. We had just lost to Illinois (in the 2005 Elite Eight) a week or two before that, so here I am thinking my career is over with. In the back of my mind, there’s so many people who’ve been to prison that didn’t do anything (wrong) and get falsely convicted, so that’s where my mindset was at. (The officer) kept telling me I wasn’t charged or arrested, but I couldn’t leave the back of the police car and I just sat back there with handcuffs on. Obviously, I was released four hours later, but that was the scariest moment of my life.”

Arizona guard Jawann McClellan listens to music before an open practice one day before the first round of the NCAA tournament at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Tuesday Mar. 19, 2008.

What made you want to pursue criminal justice?

A: “I wanted to try and make a change, honestly. And not just with police brutality, but in my own neighborhood. We dealt with the protests so it’s been a long week for me, and I heard people of my color call me a (racial slur) or words that you know don’t have anything to do with you, because I’m from the same neighborhood as you are. My people are hurting right now and they don’t know how to express it when they see people of their color with the other team. I’m trying to tell them, ‘If you want change, come join.’ That’s the only way that’s going to help.

“If we join, we can’t point the finger and say this and this and that. I tell people, ‘Hey, if we weren’t on the force, what do you think would be going on?’ I did it for change and I didn’t have to do it for the money. The money is good, but it’s not why I got into it. Honestly, I thought it was my calling. It was either that or coaching for me, and in the coaching ranks, you deal with a little racism, too. As you know, the black coach is looked at as the recruiter; he goes and gets the kids. The black coach is looked at as the token guy and the recruiter. When the black coach gets all the kids, he doesn’t get a job. … We’re still dealing with it and we’re nowhere close to where we want to be. I’m not saying all black coaches are great or all black police officers are great — or all black people are great, because we have bad seeds in every race. But just because you’re a bad seed, it’s not left up to us to judge your fate. We all just need to get along and be cordial.”

When you saw the video of Floyd, did you think it’d have the impact it had?

A: “I did not. (Michael Brown’s 2014 killing in Ferguson, Missouri) was probably the closest thing to it, but it was only in Ferguson. I didn’t think it was going to be more than nationwide. We’re talking about London, Israel, China, things like that outside of the United States. You see people marching and George Floyd’s mural hanging everywhere. I didn’t know it was going to impact like that. What got me that it could have the impact like that was the last three minutes when you could just tell his body was lifeless. … The video from a police perspective was all wrong, and there was no way you could justify it.”

This year has been troubling for a number of reasons, but what do you believe will be the positive outcome when we look back on this?

A: “I don’t know if you and I will be alive to see it. This is going to take time and this is a 20- or 30-year (process). Keep building, right? We’ve been dealing with this for 400 years and now it’s 2020. I don’t think this discussion or topic will go away anytime soon. … I don’t get into politics, but I want the people at the top to do what is right for all people. I just hope we get to a place where we can all get along and figure this thing out. This is going to be an ongoing thing.”

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Justin writes stories and produces digital content about UA football and basketball and high school football. A Tucson native, Justin graduated from the UA in 2017 and is the host of the Wildcast Podcast and a radio host on ESPN Tucson.

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