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The Good and the Bad of the GarPax Protest

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Amid the Bulls’ nationally-televised loss to the Clippers last night, there was a demonstration from the fans against the Bulls’ front office.

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The concept of a protest seems to have lost its luster since the start of the new millenium. While one would think that the Internet age and the unprecedented level of communication ushered in alongside it would bring about easier-to-organize protests than ever before, only demonstrations with firmly-rooted and just causes—such as those during the Civil Rights Movement—avoid falling flat or on deaf ears. As an example, Occupy Wall Street failed because, regardless of whether or not its critiques were valid, the message lacked depth and a carefully-crafted plan for a future following its success. A new generation has yet to realize that sheer quantity of people is not enough to spark a change or rally general consensus onto their side. If the message is not founded in response to a blatant disregard for ethics, and an alternative path going forward is not proposed, then you end up with stuff like He Will Not Divide Us.

Thus, we come to the #FireGarPax protest that occurred at the Bulls/Clippers game last night at the United Center. The protest began in response to the news from K.C. Johnson last month that, despite reports from ESPN, Gar Forman and John Paxson would be retained at the end of the Bulls’ season. That prompted an 18-year-old Chicago native named Matt Gray to take to the Bulls’ subreddit and make his first post ever regarding his frustrations with the front office and a call-to-action to do something about it during the Bulls game on ABC the next month.

The response was widespread and immediate. Within the first day of the post going up, it rocketed to the top of the front page and received over 360 comments. People subscribed to notifications from the Bleacher Report Bulls Team Stream got a notice that a protest against the Bulls’ front office would take place. ESPN did a segment (albeit a short and terrible one) about the protest on their popular show SportsNation. Gray went on local radio 670 The Score to talk about the experience and expectations for the event. Beloved former-BaB writer Stephen Noh interviewed Gray and did a nice overall profile on the event for The Athletic Chicago. Even the Chicago Tribune in the days leading up to the event did their own profile on Gray and the protest.

Part of what helped the virality of the event were these great t-shirts that Gray helped create and make available online for the lowest possible price that the outlets would allow:

The shirts had to be taken down twice due to copyright issues and pushback from the Bulls’ legal team, but eventually went up on and are still available for purchase. Even if the action from the Bulls’ lawyers is disregarded, Gar Forman is certainly aware that these shirts exist, and has known for at least two weeks:

But now we come to last night, the date of the protest itself. Gray told me he had reasonable expectations for about no more than two dozen people to rally around section 304 in the signature t-shirts, but I have to admit that I knew this probably wasn’t going to go the way fans would have wanted when I made my way up there prior to tip-off. Though I was scouting the area considerably earlier than most fans show up to games, I saw the usual sights of fans on dates, families entertaining their children, or young singles just trying to enjoy a beer and a ballgame... but no outright protesters. I spoke with bartenders and food vendors about their opinions of the front office, and while they nearly unanimously agreed that they could and should be doing a better job with the team, none of them were aware of a protest that evening. I also noted that the 300 level seemed a bit colder than usual last night, perhaps done intentionally to prompt fans to keep their jackets on rather than expose their t-shirts underneath, whatever the design may be.

Eventually, I made my way down to my own seat in the 100 level near where ABC had set up their sideline color commentary booth. At some point during the broadcast, this happened:

It’s also worth noting that the commentary team had a screen set up behind them to avoid fans from jumping into the camera shot and making any statements, although I believe ESPN does this for every televised game. At one point, I noted a group of three young fans nearby that had planned to jump into the frame with their Fire GarPax shirts on, but they figured they would be thwarted by the screen. They all planned to come back at halftime and try again, but the producers made sure the screen came back up as soon as the broadcast resumed.

Other than that, everything that followed was your typical Bulls game, although I will also note that Gar Forman was not in attendance in his usual mid-court box. Fans were energized early on thanks to the Bulls’ stellar first half on Saturday night primetime against a Western Conference playoff opponent. The entertainment, as always, was top-notch; from kid-dancers masterfully performing the Juju On Dat Beat dance all the way down to the always-on-point Bucket Boys. Then a terrible second half killed all the energy, much like what happened against the Nuggets earlier in the week. At no point in the game did a “Fi-re-Gar-Pax” chant gain any traction, at least not from where I could hear. Gray did note in his protest recap that there was a row of kids that tried to get the chant going along with him.

This protest was never going to unseat Gar Forman and John Paxson. Almost anyone with a shred of common sense could see that was the case. This wasn’t a protest to unseat a war-criminal dictator or pry a country free from the grasp of another one. We’re talking about frustration over a sports team here, which pales in comparison to the causes of other protests that deserve the attention and respect of the masses. However, an 18-year-old young man took it upon himself to raise awareness about a situation he cared deeply about, and he almost certainly succeeded in that regard in a little under a month. Fire GarPax was already a message that resonated with a great deal of Bulls fans, and last night was just another step in making the average basketball fan aware of what the front office has done to this team over the last seven years.