Like Others Before Him, James Blake Is Taking A Stand

Video footage from the 2015 incident outside of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Manhattan when former tennis player James Blake was grabbed and forced to the ground by an NYPD officer .

NEW YORK -- When James Blake was six, his parents, Thomas and Betty, decided to move the family from the struggling city of Yonkers, New York -- where they had met on the tennis courts of Fay Park -- to the manicured suburb of Fairfield, Connecticut.

The cities are just over 40 miles apart, but they are a world away. The biracial tennis player, who rose to as high as No. 4 in the world professional rankings, grew up as a relative minority in a town that is 91.6 percent white and likely never faced some of the policing tactics with which he was confronted this week as he stood outside a midtown hotel.

The video of Blake's arrest this week -- in a case of mistaken identity -- is jarring. A relaxed Blake, leaning on a column in front of the Grand Hyatt, is rushed by undercover officer James Frascatore and forced to the ground. Frascatore, without identifying himself as a police officer or reading Blake his rights, pins and then handcuffs him.

Blake is not planning to sit idly by and let the incident pass. Like other tennis professionals before him -- Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Venus Williams -- he is taking an active role to help ensure something is done to rectify the situation.

He has requested a meeting with police commissioner William Bratton and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio -- who apologized to Blake for the treatment -- to discuss a fund to educate officers against harsh police tactics.

"I'm sure this isn't the first time police brutality has happened, and I'm sure it's not the last time," Blake told the Associated Press. "So I want them to apologize to the people that this happens to that don't have the same voice that I have."

That voice was fostered in the world of professional tennis, a place that is somewhat insulated but also is where Ashe, Billie Jean King and Venus Williams developed their own activism. Had Williams not written an opinion column to a London paper lamenting Wimbledon's unequal prize money, the tournament may not have been prompted to act.

"You play tennis and what it does is, it gives you a platform," the outspoken Billie Jean King said. "It's important that [Blake] step up because we're the lucky ones.

"I'm happy he's going to get more involved in social justice. We can't allow people to treat each other badly, and what happened to him was inappropriate."

We can't allow people to treat each other badly, and what happened to him was inappropriate.
Billie Jean King

Blake's treatment is a familiar story in many minority communities, but he rarely is the victim of rough tactics being such a well-known person. Watching the video, it's easy to imagine the disaster that would've ensued had Blake resisted, or fought back, against a man he didn't know to be on the police force.

"For a lot of Americans, this is the first time they've seen what black folks in America experience," activist and Daily Kos columnist Shaun King said. "The lived experience of black people is that you don't have to live in Harlem, you don't have to be wearing a certain type of clothes, but you see a former sports star properly groomed and he did nothing wrong -- and still experienced brutality."

Billie Jean King said Blake had always been quiet and measured when he played on the ATP Tour. Even when there was a possibly racially motivated comment directed at him, Blake made peace with the offender. But Blake grew up admiring Ashe, a passionate voice for equality who once was arrested outside the South African embassy during a protest against apartheid.

Those who watched Blake's admirable career know this isn't the first time he has been confronted with a racially charged incident. In 2001, Blake played Australia's Lleyton Hewitt, who became angered after a foot-fault call by a black linesman went against him. He implored the chair umpire to look at the "similarity" and motioned to the linesman and to Blake.

Hewitt said his reaction wasn't racially motivated but that he was pointing to another place on the court where another call was made. Blake could have been publically skeptical of such a revisionist explanation, but he didn't cause a scene. Blake said he spoke to Hewitt a day later and they were square.

It's not clear whether race played a part in Blake's arrest, but Shaun King said he has seen black men and women forced into activism after being subjected to similar tactics while white suspects are treated with more dignity.

"Bernie Madoff wasn't slammed to the ground," Shaun King said.

Thomas and Betty Blake used to take their sons to the Harlem Tennis Center to keep them connected to the city and to a diverse community. James Blake used to return around Christmas every year, even when he was on tour, to lead clinics for the young girls and boys playing there.

Now, he is speaking out for an issue in the tradition of Ashe, Billie Jean King and Williams.

"I think all of us viewed history as being progressive," Shaun King said. "And there are things that are better in 2015 than in 1973. But I think all of us are realizing that some things are better, and some things are worse."

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