I try not to be judgmental. But make no mistake; if you are talking about anything other than the James Blake video this week, I am judging you. Harshly. As a white male in his late 40s, I have no special standing to talk about Blake, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, racial profiling, any of it. I’ve never faced the business end of a policeman’s sap, never been thrown to the ground, cuffed or profiled in a way that demeaned me. Instead, police have been exceedingly nice and gracious to me every time I have ever interacted with them.
So in a sense, I have no unique perch from which to comment. But. As an American and a New Yorker, I have all the standing in the world; in truth, I have a mandate to talk about it. Because there, on that video, is absolute evidence that I am helping to finance and support a violent, racist regime of terror. Yes. Terror. I use the word advisedly, understanding exactly how much of a jolt it carries.
Imagine being a Black male in his early thirties, walking alone, wearing a hoodie—a four hundred dollar Vince hoodie even—on West Sixty-Seventh Street. Suddenly, you see a woman pointing down the street, and next to her, two policemen, guns at the ready. What emotion do you think you would feel? I’ll tell you—terror. And it would be justified.
In James Blake we have, it seems to me, the most useful tool yet with which to tell the story. And not just because Blake is a Harvard educated millionaire tennis player. But because this Harvard educated millionaire tennis player did not resist arrest, was not read his rights, was not even spoken to—he was just taken to the ground, harshly, forcefully, and cuffed. He was stripped of his freedom.
I watch the tape, and I am sickened. Heartbroken. I am heartbroken for James Blake and for all the Black men who have been treated like that without recourse, without video, without even the remotest chance that anyone in the system would believe them. I am heartbroken that we live in a city and country whose citizens know, at some deep cellular level, this happens, time and again to Black men in every city and state, yet who live in some kind of denial about it, barely letting it register as a conscious thought.
And I am heartbroken because I don’t understand how to affect change. I don’t even really believe that it can change. But it has to, somehow.
Blake himself has been heroic in his response, measured, strong, generous. I don’t think I’d be any of those if it were me tossed to the concrete like a felon.
Perhaps the fact that it has never happened to me is the very reason I can write about it, talk about it. Part of me believes that if I had been a victim like Blake or one of the countless others, I’d be out there on the streets in the shadow of this incident with a heavy club or gun of my own, ready to mete out my own brand of revenge as justice. Or maybe I’d just give up, the weight of all of it too much, and something in me would just die.
The Mayor and Police Commissioner have apologized, have offered to meet with him. I hope that happens. And I hope he tells them that it is not enough. I hope he tells them that it can’t go on, that this dehumanizing, institutional cruelty must end now.
I can hear their response, can’t you? That this was one bad cop, that it was all a misunderstanding, that a new sensitivity is aborning in the wake of this action. I can also hear how tinny it will sound, how empty, how cold. It’s getting late, too late, really, for this canned answer to still be coming off spokesman’s lips.
I try not to be judgmental. But I try harder to be human. And to see the humanity in others. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of the NYPD that they try it too, now, before it gets even later.