What Happens if You Are Not Named James Blake

African American in Prison
African American in Prison

Last week, tennis great James Blake stood outside of his hotel and played on his phone. A few moments later, a man that he originally thought was an exuberant fan tackled him to the ground. Turns out that the man is an undercover NYPD officer who did not feel the need to identify himself before tackling him in broad daylight. After 15 minutes of being held in handcuffs, an off-duty officer recognized Mr. Blake as a renowned tennis player. Subsequently, Mr. Blake regained his freedom.
Unfortunately, the experience of the former #4 tennis player in the world is not the same as countless Black men in the City. Black men who are not celebrities or well-known athletes do not get released 15 minutes later.

Last Fall, I accepted a role as the Vice-President of a national HIV/AIDS service organization. I packed, shipped my belongings, and boarded a red-eye flight from Seattle to NYC. Upon landing, I discovered my luggage did not make it. The airline promised to courier my suitcases to my apartment. Exhausted from moving and traveling, I went to my new home as the first tenant in a brand new building and slept soundly. My phone rang three hours later with the airline letting me know that the driver arrived. I walked down the stairs and out the door towards the courier service vehicle.

Suddenly, I felt someone grab me from behind. Two NYPD police officers. They said that I must come with them and one forcibly put me into handcuffs. It just did not compute. I just wanted my luggage. I just wanted to sleep. I just wanted to be left alone.

For me as a non-celebrity Black man in New York City, after fifteen minutes, I was shackled to a chair in the precinct while continually asking why I was being arrested. No one would tell me. Nine hours later, the arresting officer finally told me why I was arrested: a crime committed a month earlier–obviously before I moved to New York City. On the day in question, I was leading multiple sessions at the United States Conference on AIDS across the country in San Diego.

Luckily for him, Mr. Blake did not suffer the indignities of being held in custody for 37 hours as I did. Being fingerprinted, having his mugshot taken, and being laughed at by the social worker when detailing my “obviously fictitious” educational background. Like Mr. Blake, I hold a degree from a fancy institution (Duke University) that also did not shield me from false (mistaken) arrest. While behind bars, I was denied a phone call. Told that I could not have access to legal representation. Witnessed a 17 year old girl forcibly thrown into the cell since she refused to go in willingly because she was scared, claustrophobic, and denied her anxiety medicine.

When released from police custody, Mr. Blake was not led handcuffed and then released onto a freezing NYC street corner at 3am with no wallet, no phone and no apartment keys (which were being held as evidence elsewhere and were not immediately available to me for three days). What did happen to this American sports here is: he already received a public apologyfrom the NYC Mayor and NYC Police Chief. The rest of us, and our respective families, who have similar stories of injury and far too often death, are still awaiting our respective apologies. Mine never came.

But I was lucky. I was able to get away from the City that is often viewed by Black men today in the same way that Birmingham, Alabama was viewed by people of my parent’s generation. Mr. Blake will also escape NYC soon as he boards his return flight to San Diego. Many men are not as lucky and remain in constant threat of losing their freedom at the hands of public servants for solely walking onto the sidewalk and having the same characteristics of a menace to society. That similarity is far too often just perceived race.

Discussions continue about how to best address injustices disproportionately experienced by Black men in America. Apologies will not undo all the harm wrought to so many of our citizens, but it is a necessary first step.


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