Duron Harmon was 17 years old when he experienced racism for the first time, when he understood what it means to be a black male in the United States.
He was in his home state of Delaware, dropping off his mom, his sister and his nephew at Walmart. He parked for a moment in the fire lane outside the entrance, which caught the eye of a police officer nearby.
"He looked at me crazy and I kind of gave him the same look back," Harmon recalled. "Then he circles around, knocks on the door, ‘What are you doing right here?’ I was like, 'I'm just waiting for my family to get out.' Then he starts snapping, telling me to get out the car. I ask him why, tell him I’m about to move. He’s like, 'No, you’re not about to move. Get out of the car.' Then all of a sudden he says, 'If you don’t roll this window down I’m gonna break this effing glass.' He pulls me out, gets me up, I go to put my hand in my pocket, he starts yelling at me, 'Get your effing hands out of your pocket!'
"I'm a 17-year-old boy, and we did all this for a ticket for parking in the fire lane where all he had to do was just tell me to move. He just didn’t like the way I looked at him, he felt like he was in control of the situation, he had to let me know he was the boss."
It wasn't until the police department realized Harmon was a local football star, committed to play at a Division 1 university, that tensions cooled. This would prove to be a theme when Hamon reached the NFL. The new safety for the Lions, acquired this offseason in a trade with the Patriots, spoke for nearly a half-hour with local media Friday morning about his personal experiences with racism and his efforts for change as protests against social injustice and police brutality continue around the country.
Harmon, 29, spent the first seven years of his career in New England, where he remembers being pulled over multiple times for dubious reasons. Like the time he was leaving a mall in Massachusetts with his wife and his son, and a police officer stopped him as soon as he got on the highway because his car still had Delaware plates.
"I’m like, 'So you pull everybody over for not knowing the license plate?'" Harmon asked. "And he didn’t really give me an answer."
Or the time he was going to get an MRI in Brockton, a 'predominantly black and brown community' south of Boston.
"Literally 30 seconds from the MRI place and get pulled over, and the first thing the policeman asked me was, 'Whose car is this?' I’m like, 'You see me driving it, it’s my car,'" Harmon said. But that didn't satisfy the officer, who asked Harmon what he was doing in Brockton.
"Then he asked for my license, registration and he comes back, and it’s so crazy because in both of those instances, after they figure out who I was and who I play for, the conversation obviously takes a turn," Harmon said. "Then they want to talk about the Patriots and us trying to win a Super Bowl."
Harmon doesn't recall these experiences bitterly. They are what they are, a reality of the world he lives in. It's a world Harmon is striving to improve. He's been a vocal participant on the Lions' Zoom calls this week about race relations and how the organization can help affect change, and he's eager to move from Massachusetts to Detroit to start helping at the local level. Harmon is cognizant of his platform as an NFL player and how he can use it to help those in need.
It's something he learned during his time with the Patriots, from former teammates like Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty and Matthew Slater. Harmon teamed up with the McCourty twins last year to help pass an education bill that increased funding for schools in low-income communities in Massachusetts.
"Being able to be a part of changing the education bill in Massachusets and get a billion dollars for unprivileged schools, that’s what it’s about. That’s what’s really going to change people," Harmon said. "Me playing the game, yeah, it’ll give some people hope, but if I can be a part of something that gave a billion dollars to unprivileged schools, work for that and really lobby, went in front of the legislators and voiced my opinion, that’s important.
"I think once I was able to accomplish that, I realized how big our platform is. And I’m just trying to let younger players realize how big their platform is and how much we really can create change."
Harmon was one of several NFL players who followed Colin Kaepernick in kneeling during the national anthem in 2017. The injustices Kaepernick was protesting then -- police brutality, racial inequality -- are even clearer now.
"It’s not something he just did for attention. This is something that this guy is still fighting for today. One of the best leaders of our generation. He’s fighting each and every day, so all you can do is respect what he does," Harmon said. "Obviously you’re sad because his career didn’t go the way it should’ve went, but I think people are realizing now what he was truly standing for because the world is stopped and people have to listen, they have to see it. There’s no turning the other eye. If you’re turning the eye, you’re condoning it."
Harmon is committed to continuing Kaepernick's fight, and enlisting the help of the NFL along the way.
"I think the NFL is trying to do a good job right now," he said. "They’re putting out statements, they’re donating money. But as black NFL players, we have to continue to pressure the NFL to truly stay on course and stay at this issue because eventually people are going to get busy again and want to get back in their own worlds. As African American players, we have to make sure the NFL is always fighting this issue and having our back, because we’re not going away from this. We’re going to make sure that it gets changed, and the only we can do that is with our white brothers and white sisters, because we need them with us.
"We’re crying for help and I feel like we’re at a point where help is on the way. And the NFL is trying to make sure that they supply that help as well so we can create real change in the world."