In Wake of George Floyd's Death, James Blake Reflects on His Own Experience with Police Brutality

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On the latest Beyond the Baseline podcast, host Jon Wertheim talks with former player and current Miami Open tournament director, James Blake. In the wake of national unrest and anger following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Blake recalls his own experience with police brutality in 2015, when he was slammed to the ground by an NYPD officer outside of a Manhattan hotel. Blake discusses his thoughts on Floyd and the current protests across the country; what he learned from his experience; how he is currently using his platform to speak out against racism and police brutality; and much more.

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Jon Wertheim: You say that these incidents of police brutality have happened in the last year, in the last five year and you speak from experience with that. You and I have talked about the police brutality, but do you see yourself as a victim of racial bias as well?

James Blake: I remember it, obviously, very vividly. But when it happened, I didn't want to rush to judgment. I didn't want to say that's the reason right away, because I know how much of a powder keg that is, how much that can set off anger and resentment that can set off just crazy fireworks. So I didn't say that initially, in my first interview. I wanted to wait. And then seeing all the facts as I did throughout and seeing that this officer that attacked me had other incidents and all against African-American men, all seemingly racially motivated. And then the fact that the person they did arrest for the crime they supposedly looking at me for was white and there was no incident. He was taken off peacefully. I don't believe he was in cuffs. So that to me makes me believe that, yes, it was it was racially motivated. And the officer did this to me is one of those that is talked about in the nice way of saying a bad apple. In my opinion, he's practically a criminal, he's wearing a uniform but what he was doing, in my opinion, is bordering on criminal activity. 

For him to do that and to do that so often and then to get away with it is what these protests are about, which is why I was screaming at the top of my lungs about this, why I was so adamant about this person, this officer that did this to me, being fired and not having this job is because almost every person like Derek Chauvin that ends up killing an unarmed civilian has these kinds of records. They have misconduct on their record. Chauvin I believe had 17 other incidents. So at this point, all of those he was upheld, unaccounted for and he just keeps going and going. And then this is the end result. So in my case, the officer had, I believe, four or five serious incidents where the where the city already paid out and his on his behalf. And now we're gonna just give him five vacation days and he's gonna be right back on the force. Well, these are the type of people that end up killing someone. And I don't want that to be his future. I don't want that to be the future of the person that will be a victim. And it could be stopped. And that's where precedent, in my opinion, needs to be changed, where they can't have this many incidents and still be able to be in charge of having lethal force and able to hide under the shield of the badge and just get away with it. They need to be held responsible and not allowed to do this.

Not everyone is cut out to be a police officer. The ones who do the job well are heroes. They go into dangerous situations to protect and serve, to help us, to make our society safer. Not everyone's cut out to be that, not everyone's cut out to be a doctor, not everyone's cut out to be a lawyer and not everyone's cut out to be an athlete. It's just not in certain people's DNA. And the officers that have this problem with rage, that have this problem with power trips that aren't able to de-escalate situations, they shouldn't be police officers. They should be something else. There's got to be other jobs out there for them. But this one is too valuable. It's too dangerous to society to have them with that cloak of security of the badge.

JW: Did you say five vacation days? Did I hear that right?

JB: Yeah, it took two years of me fighting to get this done. And he got five vacation days docked from his for his participation. That's for him being the one that took me down on video with no apology and no remorse. So that to me is not a real punishment. It's just a slap on the wrist and it makes me so much angry to think that he might be sitting back somewhere laughing about the fact that he got away with this on camera against a public figure in broad daylight. What's to say I'm gonna do a whole lot worse when it's two a.m. And also, in my opinion, that's why I thought my case was so easy to be a precedent setter instead of just going by all these unknowns, like there's no way that I could be a victim shamed. I've seen so many of these other cases when it's not right to do, but they say, Well, he shouldn't have been out at three in the morning. He shouldn't have been outside that liquor store. He shouldn't have had those loose cigarettes. He shouldn't have had a small amount of marijuana in his pocket. He shouldn't have had a knife. And they're going to blame them. But I was standing outside the Grand Hyatt in New York at noon waiting with my U.S. Open badge in my pocket, ready to go to the U.S. Open. You can't say that I was doing anything wrong with no criminal record, you know? So to me, I thought that one where you could set the precedent and say, hey, this is obviously wrong. It's time to send a message and say, you can't do this. You can't get away with harassing and attacking citizens and just go on and have the rest of your day be fine. 

JW: It's funny we talk about the decline of the labor union. That is one powerful union. I think you you saw it firsthand. 

JB: It is. It's amazing. And they go into spin control. They go into into the media. They've got such a powerful union that they stick up for each other. And that's where it's it can also be really dangerous is that it seems like they're you know, their oath is to protect and serve, but that's to protect and serve the community. And it seems like they're just protecting and serving each other. Even in the case of Chauvin, it seems like: Who is protecting by putting his knee on the neck of George Floyd? He thinks in his mind maybe he's protecting the other officers because this man might be dangerous. But when he's cuffed, unarmed. He's clearly not dangerous. But these unions and all the other officers that may be good people, may be good officers that are staying silent. You know, when I was tackled, there were four other officers on the scene. And if I didn't have that video and if I hadn't spoken up, not one of them had filed the report. They didn't know that I had started speaking up or started speaking to the media later that day. And not one of them had filed the report. Not one of them had said anything had gone on. So that would have just never happened. That would've been completely swept under the rug. And those officers, maybe good officers, they didn't do anything personally, directly to me. But they're complicit in what that one officer did to me because they're not going to say anything. And that's where this union, this brotherhood, this sort of fraternity that they have can be dangerous. 

I saw someone posted something saying that if you've got 10 bad cops and a 1,000 cops are silent about it, you've got a 1,010 bad cops. And that's one way of putting it. But it's true because they could say something. And that's where they need to make their job easier by saying something. I think in the short term, it will be more difficult because this brotherhood is so close and they're afraid there's gonna be backlash. People going to say you're going against what we're supposed be doing, we're together. But in the long run, I think it makes their job tougher because for the rest of my life, I might be more tense and more nervous every time I encounter a police officer. And everyone in that's seen what happened to George Floyd, everyone that's seen these videos is now maybe a little more nervous, and that's gonna make the good cops job much tougher. So if you get rid of the ones that are making your job tougher, I think in the long run it'll be better for society for sure. But it should be better for the police as well. 

JW: Apart from the scrapes and scratches, how has this impacted you?

JB: I got up last Thursday or Friday, but I got up in the middle of the night and I don't know about you, sometimes you get up and then you can get right back to sleep. And if you can't once in a while your mind starts going and you go down a bit of a rabbit hole and I started thinking and thinking and I couldn't get back to sleep. I lost pretty much entire night's sleep, but I started thinking, and this isn't the first time it's happened, but it was because of seeing that video of George Floyd. You start thinking about what could have happened when it happened to me in 2015. 

I think about how lucky I am, very often, because being a public figure around the U.S. Open in New York, I see someone running towards me. Plain-clothes, it doesn't say it's a police officer. And my first reaction, thank goodness, luckily, was this might be a fan. This is someone coming that saw one of my matches and wants to scream and yell at me, didn't know if they'd ever get a chance to talk to me, and they say they were sitting there watching my Agassi match or something like that, and they want to tell me. So this guy runs at me and I have my hands down and in the video you can see I'm actually smiling because I think this is hopefully just a fan. And before you know it, a split second he throws me against a wall and tackles me out onto the ground, puts me in my back and starts pulling out handcuffs. 

Now, at this point, I assume it's a cop. And my first reaction is: I'm 100% compliant, whatever you say I'm going to do, because that's the conversation I had with my dad growing up. Because at that point, this is obviously pre George Floyd, but there were plenty of other incidents before that I had seen on the news that I was scared of, that I didn't want to be another headline like that. So I'm saying that and I think about if I hadn't been who I am and thinking, this is a fan, my first reaction when you see someone running out to is there's two options: fight or flight. You either swing or you start running. And I think if I'd done either one of those, if I had swung, he was bigger than me. He's obviously been trained in hand-to-hand combat, I'm sure. And there were four other officers on the scene. So I'm going to be in big trouble. And the other one is if I start running, there are four other officers on the scene. I mean, I did run pretty good when I was on tour, but now I cannot outrun all four of these guys. And the fact, like you said, they're armed. So I start running even though I've done nothing wrong. If I just see someone running at me and I start running, I look guilty. And then they're going to say, I'm resisting. And there's four other officers, one of them tackles me. And then I don't think they take it easy on me if I'm running and I'm squirming and I'm trying to get away from there. So I just think about how lucky I was in that regard that I had. 

The reaction that I had was the absolute minimum pain and suffering I got. And then the other thing is, since he didn't say "police," if they've my trainer had been standing right next to me, if my brother had been standing next me, if one of my best friends had been sitting next me, and they see someone take me down, they're going to take him down. They're going to go after him and swing at him. And then I said, the four other officers on the scene, they're going to be possibly shot, hurt, tackled, arrested, whatever. It's going to be bad for everyone. So I just think about all the situations that could have happened, and it makes me think. 

One, I'm extremely lucky the way it happened. And two, next time, you know, is there going to be a next time? Is there going to be a time when I'm just legitimately just standing outside and something like this could happen and it could be worse because someone else might be there with me or I might have a different reaction? And why is it fair? It basically it isn't fair that there have to be these two different sets of rules because I have to be on my best behavior. I have to say 100% I'm complying with you, officer, I'm doing all this even though I did nothing wrong, as opposed to other people that are so brazen, so OK with flaunting the rules, flaunting the laws—the protesters that were carrying assault rifles, storming the Capitol building in Michigan, they were not at all worried about any sort of police in riot gear, anyone taking, you know, taking them down or attacking them or anything like that. Why are there two totally different sets of rules? 

It's just not fair at this point, at this day and age. When they supposedly freed the slaves and Abraham Lincoln did that and everything, we're supposed to be equal. All men are created equal. But then why do we have two different sets of rules? And it doesn't seem fair that I have to be nervous every time I'm out for a jog or standing outside a hotel or doing anything. And the rest of the world, the white world can go through that without ever thinking those kind of thoughts and committing the same crimes. They are committing the crimes about the same rate, but blacks are being punished three times more often and with sentences twice as harsh. 

Why are these sets of rules still totally different in 2020 when we've supposedly been free for so long? It just it made me think and I just started thinking and thinking and thinking and that was pretty much all night what what was going through my mind, like, when will this change? And I was just thinking about something today and someone talked about some of the words of Martin Luther King. Everyone's saying Martin Luther King protested peacefully. It would've been fine. But it wasn't always like that. He wanted justice as well and said the oppressors will never voluntarily give up those that they're oppressing. It might have to be taken from those that are being oppressed. And I think about that. So at this point, that's why I'm very happy that there are protests—again, not the riots, the protests, because we have to stand up and say that something needs to change. It's not fair at this day and age that we're still being oppressed, that we're still living as second class citizens.

The fact that when you talk about, OK, black and brown are second class citizens at times, they are treated that way. If you watch that video, which I don't know how many times people want to watch the video of George Floyd, but the callousness and the almost lackadaisical attitude of some of the other police officers, they're just standing their hands in pocket and other by-standers that are watching this. And there isn't crazed outrage. There were some people saying, hey, let him up, let him go. And, you know, he can't breathe. But just imagine if that was an officer doing that to a dog, a pet. And how much outrage there would be. And so these people, not on purpose, but the officers and the bystanders are saying that a dog's life, a pet's life is going to be more valuable than this black man, because they've seen it. 

And that's where I got so scared that we've been desensitized. That must've been that night that it happened, because I was thinking about this because the protests sudden started yet. So now it then encouraged me—OK, we're not totally desensitized. People still care because they've seen this and they're going to react and they're going to take this kind of action immediately. But it just made me think like, how many people care so much about dogs and they're going to be so vocal about saving these dogs, saving these animals. But they're not going to do that about a black man that's on the street dying with a knee on his neck for nine minutes nearly. It just made me think it made me so sad to think that that's that's the way that a lot of people in the public look at a black man.