Story: A neatly dressed, well groomed 30-something man is standing outside a nice hotel in Manhattan, waiting quietly, a smile on his face. At the same time a sting operation is going down inside the hotel where the police are arresting some people who have been accused of identity theft. The man just standing there minding his own business is identified as looking like one of the people in the theft ring. Oh, and, by the way, the 30-something man is white.
How do the plainclothes officers outside the hotel respond? Do a few of them move in this man's direction, form a loose circle around him, show their police identification and tell him to put his hands up, then only take more aggressive action if he fails to comply? Or do they rush him without warning, pick him up, body slam him to the ground and cuff him? Either scenario is possible, but since he's only a suspect, not someone who they've seen commit a crime, since the crime he may have committed is a white collar, nonviolent crime, and since he's standing quietly in front of the hotel, I think good police work would mean refraining from the use of force unless it's necessary.
The incident I described unfolded Wednesday night in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan, but one thing about the man is different than the way I described him. He's black. He's James Blake, the 35 year old tennis star who has retired from the tennis circuit but is still playing in the Champions Tour with the likes of John McEnroe and Jim Courier. When he was identified as one of the people possibly involved in the identity theft ring, he was waiting for a car that would take him to the U.S. Open where he was going to be interviewed. According to an interview Blake gave on ABC News
, a plainclothes policeman wearing t shirt and shorts without a visible badge charged him.
"I saw someone from the street running directly at me. . . . He picked me up and body slammed me, put me on the ground, told me to turn over, shut my mouth, and he put the cuffs on me."
Sure, it could've happened to any well dressed, 30-something guy standing quietly on the sidewalk outside a fancy hotel who the police thought had committed a crime, but the chances are far more likely that the aggressive take-down would happen to a black male than a white male who was similar in every way except for skin color. It can be dangerous to be Driving While Black, Walking While Black or Standing While Black.
Harvard-educated James Blake did exactly what he should have done. He offered no resistance. He told the officers he would help them in any way he could. He told them who he was and said they could find his identification in his pocket. Fifteen minutes later, they let him go. But what if having a man rush him, pick him up and body slam him triggered the fight-or-flight instinct in this strong, fit, athletic young man? What if he struggled or took a swing at the cop? He could have thought he was being mugged, not arrested, by the unidentified man in the t shirt and shorts and felt he had to try and break free. If Blake hadn't responded in such a quiet, acquiescent manner, he could easily be in the hospital right now, or worse.
What if he was a different 30-something black man and he was dressed in a less affluent way and was standing around in a less affluent part of town and didn't have any identification that made him someone special in the eyes of the arresting officers? How would this scenario have played out in the hours, days, weeks and months that followed?
I know, I know, too many hypotheticals. What if? What if? There's no proof that there was any racism involved in the police action. And maybe there wasn't. Maybe it was just a cop who had a hair-trigger emotional response and it didn't matter if Blake was black or white. Except that this kind of thing happens too often to black people, even people like Blake, or Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates (remember when he was arrested in 2009 inside his own home?), who are at the highest levels of our society and who have every reason to expect they will be treated with the same courtesy and respect as their white counterparts.
A final note. Blake said he wasn't planning to make a big deal out of this, that he was going to let it slide, until he talked to his wife and she said he had to report it. What if it happened to me? she asked him. He said he imagined his wife there on the sidewalk with the police "taking away her dignity," and he knew he had to go public.