Some people seem to think that all black people need to do to avoid being hurt and killed by police is to just look and act “right.”
Don’t wear the wrong clothes, don’t swear, answer politely when challenged, don’t wear dreadlocks or another natural hairstyle… as if performing the right series of prescribed actions can serve as a magic charm to protect you from harm. Being a polite professional in a suit and tie in the “nice” part of town should ward you from being subjected to random police violence, shouldn’t it? Not in the case of retired tennis player James Blake, who was tackled by officers in New York City on Wednesday.
Blake, who is biracial, had been at the Grand Hyatt Hotel to do an interview while the U.S. Open is in town. The hotel had concurrently called in a suspected case of credit card fraud, and when plainclothes officers approached the building, they apparently believed Blake was the culprit. An officer in shorts and a T-shirt and who was not wearing a badge charged at Blake and allegedly tackled him to the sidewalk, bouncing him against the cement and leaving him with cuts and bruises.
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While the officer who tackled Blake has been placed on desk duty during an investigation of the video footage of the incident, Blake says he’s still waiting to receive an apology from the police department, who, as he points out, shouldn’t be tackling anyone who’s merely standing still on the sidewalk, not just famous ex-tennis stars. As he told the New York Daily News:
“It was definitely scary and definitely crazy … In my mind there’s probably a race factor involved, but no matter what there’s no reason for anybody to do that to anybody.”
Blake is right, but the fact that this was done to someone like him should put the nail in the coffin for the “respectability” arguments that say all black people need to do to protect themselves from police is to look or act a certain way. Actually, lots of things long before now should have put those tired arguments to rest, but I remain forever hopeful that maybe this time we’ll sit up and pay attention.
Wearing a suit and cooperating with police didn’t save him from injury. It is not acceptable to put the burden of self-protection on the people who are being attacked, hurt and even killed in this way rather than on the people doing the attacking, hurting and killing in the first place! But it’s time to face the fact that these imaginary protections aren’t even enough to actually keep someone from harm.
It’s time to stop playing pretend when the cost of living in this imaginary world is the safety and well-being of black people. And it’s time to stop victim-blaming. The way to stop police violence against people of color is for police to stop being violent — not for people of color to fall in line with a set of hypothetical rules for their safety that have yet to work.