It was just Tuesday evening when I sat with a Black friend in the New York City stadium named after Black tennis star Arthur Ashe and watched two Black women, Venus and Serena Williams, compete in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in front of 20,000 people in the audience, including one of the richest Black women in the world, Oprah Winfrey. It was a moment that made me proud to be a Black American.
The very next day in a different part of town, another Black tennis legend, James Blake, was tackled, slammed to the ground and wrongly arrested by undercover NYPD officers outside his Manhattan hotel while waiting for his car to take him to the U.S. Open.
The contrast between Tuesday evening's zenith and Wednesday afternoon's nadir reflects the tenuousness of the African-American experience in 2015. While our nation boasts enormous Black wealth, a Black president and rich Black celebrities, we also suffer from persistent racism directed at people of color and collective amnesia reflected by much of white America.
While defensive white Americans continue to deflect self-examination by pointing to successful African-Americans like Winfrey and Obama, Black Americans know that wealth and fame will not protect us from a racist cop or a white man's bullet. Even for those who are rich or famous, Blackness is still considered suspect in America and beyond, which explains why the billionaire Winfrey could be racially profiled at a Swiss boutique and the powerful Obama could be demonized as a Kenyan outsider.
In Blake's case this week, NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton quickly denied any racial component to the incident. "Sorry, race has nothing at all to do with this," he told reporters. "If you look at the photograph of the suspect, it looks like the twin brother of Mr. Blake. So let's put that nonsense to rest right now."
Except that when I look at the photograph of the so-called twin, they don't look alike to me. But, then, I'm a bald Black man with a beard, so I could have been the suspect, in the eyes of the NYPD. Apparently, we all look alike. And yet, the very person who police described as Blake's twin "turned out to have no role in the scheme," the New York Times reported. So even the photograph the police used to identify the actual suspect was wrong.
Put all that aside for a moment. Here's the most important point. Even if James Blake, his alleged evil twin, or someone who looked just like him, had been involved in the credit card scam that spurned the violent arrest, that's no excuse for police to tackle a suspect and slam him to the ground. By all accounts, Blake was not resisting. He was standing in front of a hotel, perhaps even smiling as the undercover cop approached him.
Blake originally considered not reporting the incident, but fortunately decided to do so to draw attention to the problem of police brutality. It's good that he did because the arresting officer, James Frascatore, did not report the false arrest, as required by NYPD policy. Bratton said top police officials only learned about the incident after reading Blake's story in the press.
This marks the second high-profile police brutality case this year, following an incident in April when Atlanta Hawks player Thabo Sefolosha suffered a broken leg after he was arrested by NYPD officers. And it comes on the heels of last year's NYPD-inflicted choking death of Eric Garner, a case the city settled for $5.9 million. Clearly, we have systemic problems that need to be addressed.
The officer in Blake's case was placed on "modified assignment," Bratton announced, but that hardly seems sufficient given his record of five civilian complaints filed against him in just seven months and two excessive-force lawsuits. One former victim, Warren Diggs, who was reportedly punched by Frascatore for riding his bike on a sidewalk, told the New York Post, "This guy needed to go a long time ago ... He likes putting his hands on people." Another former victim called the officer an "arrogant" liar.
Once again, this shows the misapplication of the NYPD's so-called "broken windows" policing practice, which far too often targets low-level crime and treats petty crime suspects like murderers. I've lived in Harlem for 14 years, and I've witnessed too many incidents of undercover cops bursting out of unmarked cars, harassing street peddlers, and pushing people around, many of whom I now suspect probably posed no threat to the community or the police.
I've been wrongly stopped by the police myself and forced to produce evidence to justify my presence in the area. I filed a complaint when it happened to me, but I never heard a word about how the complaint was resolved. And I never received an apology.
Police acts of aggression are far too common on the streets of New York and in many other cities. How many of these incidents happen that we never hear about because the victims don't report it, the police don't properly investigate, or the media don't cover it? It shouldn't require a controversy about an unlawful arrest of a famous athlete for America to pay attention to a problem we've been talking about for years.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
See footage of the arrest in the video below.
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(Photo: MARK SANDERSON/Tennisclix /Landov)
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