After getting arrested with Kenny Stills, Irv Roland prepares for another round of Breonna Taylor protests

Vincent Goodwill
·9 min read

When the mission begins for 16 teams this weekend in an unconventional quest for an NBA championship, Irv Roland will be 10 toes down in Louisville, Kentucky, continuing his mission.

Roland has spent years on benches as a low-key but influential NBA assistant coach, most recently with the Houston Rockets last season, and even more time as a trainer to some of the game’s best. But taking his demeanor for reluctance or being blind to the world would be a grave error.

Roland will again be on the front lines — this time without Houston Texans wide receiver Kenny Stills — protesting the killing of Breonna Taylor and calling for charges against Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove, the officers who executed a no-knock search warrant in March by firing more than 20 rounds into Taylor’s apartment.

One officer has been fired but none have been criminally charged, and the nation’s eyes have been on Kentucky for months now. Roland and Stills have done more than that, committing time and resources and even putting their lives at risk, being arrested weeks ago for peacefully protesting on the property of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

Hit with a felony charge of intimidating a participant in the legal process — it was dropped soon thereafter but two misdemeanors were not — Roland, Stills and 85 others were handcuffed by zip ties, placed into police vans, booked and jailed last month.

Four in each vehicle, separated by a partition. Some were claustrophobic so it was troublesome even during a peaceful arrest. Once to the station, they were grouped together in a chain gang — a full detainment experience.

 Kenny Stills #12 of the Houston Texans on the sidelines during a game
Kenny Stills was arrested during a protest of the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Stills: ‘My only worry was they could get violent’

On the “BOMM” podcast hosted by Amin Elhassan, Wosny Lambre and featuring myself as a guest host, Roland and Stills talked about the experience. With it being organized by the activist group Until Freedom and most protestors coming in from out of state, the details were vague until they arrived in Louisville, but they accepted the possibilities of consequences far steeper than an arrest.

“My only worry was they [the police] could get violent,” Stills said. “We were there willing to give our lives for the cause, for Breonna, to give light to the case. If today is the last day, that’s it.”

Roland said, “My first thought was, God is gonna handle it. Whatever God has for me is for me. I went into the situation, like, if we’re supposed to die today, then God already had this mapped out. There’s nothing I could do to change that.”

Friends in Roland’s circle questioned why he had to go that far, placing himself in harm’s way considering the numerous stories of detained citizens in police custody being killed under mysterious circumstances.

“Me being scary [acting] in the house isn’t gonna change my faith. Breonna Taylor was safely in her home when they killed her,” Roland said. “Me being in my home doesn’t ensure my safety. I have to be frontline and God is gonna handle the rest.”

Although they said the arrest was largely peaceful, the details surrounding the process gave clarity to many concerns the average citizen goes through, illustrating even more frustrations.

They weren’t read their Miranda rights, it took over five hours before they were allowed to communicate with anyone. It wasn’t until Roland called his mother out of state that he figured out what the charges were.

In the time the 22 men shared a jail cell for nearly 10 hours (the 63 women were in a different cell), they found a sense of peace through conversations with each other, discovering commonalities and hoping they could carry their experiences back to their home cities once released.

“Being in jail, it was one of the more therapeutic things that’s happened to me because sometimes I walk around and feel like I’m a weirdo because I care so much,” Roland said. “Like, am I tripping? Do I need to tone it down a bit, just post something on Facebook, a fist and keep it moving? But being with those 22 men, white, Black, different sexual orientations, everything, made me feel it’s others of us out there.”

Stills said with everything going on in the world, dealing with the coronavirus in addition to the attacking of racism, it was “the most normal I’ve ever felt during this time.”

“Having that conversation. Writing stuff on the windows [to communicate with those on the outside]. Talk to each other through the air ventilators, screaming to each other making sure we’re OK,” Stills said. “Us sitting there as men, peeling back the layers of who we are and how we got in the movement and where we’re from. That was the highlight of the movement. If there was a camera inside to film that and listen to that conversation … world changers, life changers.”

Protesters ride aboard a vehicle with a smoke machine, with a sign reading 'Justice for Breonna', during a peaceful demonstration against racism.
Protesters have been hitting the streets across the country following the killing of Breonna Taylor. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Returning to Louisville for more ‘good trouble’

They’re hoping for progress this weekend when they’ll return to Louisville for more “good trouble,” in the spirit of late civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis, who was admired and mentioned by both in the discussion.

Roland is hoping for players outside of the Orlando bubble to join him. His Rolodex is as wide as any throughout the league, and even though he’s just now getting front and center, he has always let people know where he stood.

“I always had fist on a T-shirt, stay woke hat, let people know what I stand for,” Roland said. "I don’t do interviews. I was in love with the [Black] Panthers. I can’t wait for this story to come out. Right now that I don’t work for a team, I got time. I’m gonna be there.

“As much as I wanted to be like Mike, I wanted to be like John Lewis. My whole goal is to make sure, my kids, future grandkids, don’t grow up around this gang member police culture we have. I wanna be a part of change.”

When he talked to some friends about the energy around the league following his arrest, the tone was “everybody wants to be an activist,” as if he were doing it for attention on himself and not the cause.

“That crushed me,” he said.

Roland’s Instagram page could be full of the training sessions he has put on, clout chasing at its most common. Instead, he largely works in silence.

“I don’t do [my job] for clout,” he said. “Why would y’all think we did this for show? The cops could’ve done whatever they wanted to us. I don’t need a pat on the back. But to know that’s their energy …

“Guys become too far removed. I’ma wear the shirt, wear it on my jersey, write it on my shoes but how many of y’all genuinely care?”

He wants more Black men to care, noting that the ratio of women to men was 3-to-1 in Louisville, mostly white women, Roland said. The disparity helped draft a strategy when the police arrived during the peaceful protest.

“Our leaders, soon as we get confronted by the cops, we say, ‘allies, get to the front,’” Roland said. “That way, as soon as the cops approach us, we got the white people on the outside to make us look less threatening, are you gonna beat up these white women to get to us?”

That experience didn’t deter either, hence why Roland is returning from Friday to Sunday, with the mission of feeding 2,000 families, putting on a clinic with the players who attend along with taking pictures with the citizens — and protesting at night for the cause at hand.

Taylor’s family has been invited to attend the march as well. Roland’s also thinking of the kids in Louisville who’ve been inundated with everything from the past several months, who didn’t ask for the world that’s in front of them and some who are likely living in fear.

“The thing with the Louisville community, there’s protests every day, rallies every day. Peaceful for the most part. Think of a kid growing up during this time,” Roland said. “COVID going on, you can’t have regular school, your regular sporting activities, plus all the racial tension going on in your city. That’s gotta be overwhelming for a child. So we’re trying to do as much as we can to lift their spirits.”

Stills has been having candid conversations with his teammates in Houston, telling them about the police culture and giving his thoughts on defunding them as well as pushing for reparations.

On defunding the police, he said, “Reinvest it into our community. We’ve been investing money into them for so long and it’s a bad investment.”

Both Roland and Stills have spoken about the support Black women need in this time, having been the heart and spirit of this movement for years. Roland applauded the WNBA for its activist efforts — which didn’t begin this season — as well as Stills for being one of several NFL players who knelt in protest of racial injustice during the national anthem before it became vogue.

“With stuff trickling back to normal, kids going back to school and more sports, I hope people try to educate themselves and we don’t lose momentum,” Roland said. “In the direction of better training for police officers. It makes no sense that my barber has to go get educated longer than it takes for a police officer to get a uniform.”

“I’m a basketball guy. But at the end of the day, this subject means more to me than anything else. It’s just troublesome it doesn’t mean enough to guys who look like us.”

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