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Before President Donald Trump’s unprecedented second impeachment, before last week’s siege on the Capitol, we were talking about a historic double runoff election in Georgia. Two Democrats, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, will represent the state in the Senate, shifting the balance of power in Washington. It’s a big deal, and it’s worth remembering that American democracy is still kicking, even if it is battered and bruised. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to one of the activists behind this major political transformation: Renee Montgomery, a WNBA player for the Atlanta Dream who sat out the 2020 season and joined many of her teammates in supporting Warnock over Republican incumbent (and Atlanta Dream co-owner) Kelly Loeffler. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Renee Montgomery: I know a lot is getting lost in the news because of the domestic terrorist attack that happened on Jan. 6, but what shouldn’t get lost is that a Jewish man from Georgia was elected senator, a Black man from Georgia was elected senator. This is coming off of Joe Biden being elected president and Kamala Harris being elected vice president. That’s a win. That’s a 3–0 sweep. That’s a gentlewoman’s sweep right there. Yeah! We should all be excited, because this was not easy. This was a lot of time taken out towards this cause, and it was a labor of love, and so yeah, I’m definitely excited.
Mary Harris: I talked to an NBA player turned activist, Larry Nance Jr., and I asked him if he saw himself as political, and he said no. But I wonder if you always have seen yourself as political.
No, definitely not. I think most athletes would not be considered political, just in a sense of politics in sports used to be almost taboo, a stigma, because a lot of players knew that the owners of their team might be a certain—they could be Republican, to put it simple. They could feel the same way as something you’re about to speak out against. Or a sponsorship could feel the same way. And so you always didn’t want to upset the owners or upset the sponsors that may be affiliated with the team. But as you can see, I think that’s out the window now. My “click” moment was George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery.
You’ve talked about how over the summer you were watching protests in Atlanta, and you said that as the protests got closer and closer to where you live, you got a little bit scared. Can you talk about that?
Yeah. You know, I’ve never seen anything like what happened. … The first people you call when you’re scared is your parents. So I call my snook and my diddy and I’m like, hey, what should I do? Should I evacuate? I literally didn’t know how to proceed. Because if people will recall, there was a lot of turmoil in Atlanta, even with people going to the buildings and then the National Guard, all of that was happening. So I’m like, should I just evacuate and just leave the premises until things chill out? And my parents were just so calm, and my snook was like, “No, you’re good. You’re fine. If you wanted to go out there and walk into the street, you’re fine.” She was just telling me that when people don’t feel that their voice is heard, they have to make it felt. And that pretty much started my education process.
I wanted to dive into it. Things that you don’t see on Twitter, things that you don’t see in the interviews, is how much I was reading, how much I was studying, how many Netflixes I can watch educating myself. I dove in, just so that when I am speaking on things, I’m speaking from a place of understanding the past, because nothing’s new.
Was there a little bit when you talked to your mom of not just you can go outside, but maybe you should?
She didn’t say that that night, maybe because there was a lot going on just all around, but it inspired me. I ended up throwing a Juneteenth pop-up block party down in Centennial Park for that very reason. I wanted to show love to the people that were peacefully protesting. I brought drinks, I brought food, I brought a whole cookout. I’m like, if y’all are going to be out here marching peacefully, protesting all day, I’m about to feed y’all. And even at that point, I didn’t think nothing of it. But then when I saw on the news I started being called a mob leader and different things of that nature, I’m like, wow, that’s kinda crazy.
They started saying this was “mob mentality”—peaceful protests. All over the news they were calling peaceful protests “mobs,” “mob mentality.” That was the language that was being used for peaceful protesters.
And it was around that time you made an even bigger decision: to take a break from the WNBA and dedicate yourself to political action.
I called my coach, talked to her directly, and she supported me 100 percent, actually. And I was surprised, I’m not going to lie. I was like, oh, for real? She said, you know, “As a coach, obviously, I wish you would be out there with us this season. But just as a human living in America, I get it.” And so for me, that was very empowering, because I never want to let people down. So I told my teammates and let them know. And I told them, “Y’all handle things in the wubble. I got y’all outside the wubble.”
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So you used your time away from the team to expand your foundation, trying to increase community involvement in local politics, raising money for HBCUs. But then Sen. Kelly Loeffler wrote a public letter to the WNBA’s commissioner saying that the Black Lives Matter movement did not align with the league or her team, then went on Fox News to defend herself. And that’s when you responded—you called out your boss on Twitter.
I know that I’ve sent notes to my boss where I regretted it a little bit afterward, like, should I have sent that? Was my tone weird? Did you have that with that tweet?
No, I wasn’t too concerned about that. And also, just talking to my mom, she was telling me, “You can’t worry about stuff if you’re doing the right thing.” Sometimes the right thing is uncomfortable. And it was uncomfortable, but I felt like I was doing the right thing.
Did you consider reaching out nonpublicly and just saying, like, “Hey, we know each other”? I don’t know, maybe you’ve been to her house.
I have been to her house, and I did. I just didn’t tell everybody. Contrary to popular belief, everything doesn’t go on social media. But yeah, I did reach out non–social media. I sent a text. I got left on read. I didn’t get a response. So [it was] the same thing that happened with my tweet: Nothing happened.
From there, players from the Dream started looking into Loeffler’s Senate race to see whether some other candidate represented their values better. They landed on Warnock. Then they started wearing T-shirts to games that read “VOTE WARNOCK.”
This wasn’t just something that’s like, hey, we were mad and we’re going to pick him because that’s who’s running against her. It didn’t happen like that at all. He was vetted. People don’t realize—they think the players just printed out some shirts and they were basically trying to get back at the other senator. No, no, no, no, no. That’s not how educated people move. And the WNBA is comprised of educated women, most of us graduating from a four-year university—educated women. No one’s gonna do that, if you don’t know the person. So Sen. Warnock was vetted. There was a vetting process before the shirts were printed up. That’s calculated. This is tactical. This is plotting. This is planning. This is organizing. And I’m here for all of that.
The Washington Post really credited the WNBA and all the work that the Dream and others did for shifting the conversation around the Georgia Senate race. Basically it said that when you and your teammates started speaking up, there was a surge in grassroots interest in Raphael Warnock. I’m wondering if you saw that yourself—were you talking to people and seeing that energy build?
I didn’t know that until I would say two days ago. … It’s hard to see something when you’re in the middle of it and you’re in it and your head is down, you’re just working.
You have to give it up to the WNBA. And it wasn’t just the Atlanta Dream that wore the shirts. It was the Phoenix Mercury. It was the Seattle Storm. This was a group effort. And so to be a part of that group and to be on the right side of history—while it was happening, some people didn’t know what the right side was. You could tell. And now just looking back at how everything is played out, especially on Jan. 6, you can understand, wow, we really were a part of history.
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