Viewpoint James Blake, the accidental activist, still an important voice
NEW HAVEN — Before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, before Donald Trump mocked LeBron James’ intelligence, James Blake was mistaken for a criminal and slammed to the ground by a plainclothes New York police officer.
After Eric Garner gasped “I can’t breathe” on Staten Island, five months after Freddie Gray’s 2015 death in Baltimore, Blake got up from that sidewalk outside a Manhattan hotel and found his voice as what he has called “an accidental advocate.”
Harvard-educated, the greatest tennis player ever raised in Connecticut has proved to be an intelligent voice on Kaepernick, LeBron James, relations between police and the black community and, yes, the president
On Thursday before playing in an Invesco Series QQQ Men’s Legends event at the Connecticut Open, the biracial Blake shook his head at the entrenched views on Kaepernick and what he called the two narratives.
“It started as a silent peaceful protest against police brutality, against racism and inequality in this country,” Blake said. “In a similar fashion to sitting in the front of a bus for Rosa Parks, something that was completely unjust, she did something against the rules at the time. What Kaepernick did wasn’t against any rules. It was against a tradition to stand for the anthem.”
It’s not in the NFL code, something the union passed, as Kaepernick pointed out, the players weren’t even mandated to be on the field until 2009.
“When the NFL did that, they actually made the decision to give them a voice if they wanted to, otherwise they never would have had this opportunity,” Blake said. “(The NFL) wanted to show their patriotism, if you will, with the players being out there with their hand over the hearts. Getting the sort of spectacle if the players were crying.
“That may also have come from the fact they have had huge contracts with the Department of Defense to do the flyovers and the flags being brought out there.”
The narrative, Blake insisted, changed in part because of Trump.
“Players often have stated clearly, emphatically that it has nothing to with the flag, the troops, veterans,” he said. “They respect the troops and respect the fact that they gave us the freedom to speak our mind, to protest, to peacefully make a statement. In a real way it should be considered a sign of respect for them.
“The vitriolic stuff against Kaepernick is unfortunate, but it also has given it more legs, (it’s) been in the national spotlight for two years.”
Blake estimated Kaepernick has cost himself upward of $30 million.
“Whether or not he and Eric Reid play in the league again, it seems like the NFL is trying to make a statement that they won’t,” Blake said. “To take that risk, it’s something no one would do if they didn’t believe there is a problem. I firmly agree there is a problem that needs to be addressed.”
Blake praises Kaepernick for doing “an unbelievable job” of donating $1 million to various causes and encouraging athletes and entertainers to do the same. Especially grassroots causes, Blake said, including one donation of $50,000 to an organization Blake worked with to promote police transparency.
“He has put his money where his mouth is, has taken a huge hit financially, a huge hit to his career,” Blake said. “It’s something in the long run that people will admire and, hopefully, will realize what a difference he made. This all started with him. No one else took that first step. He has opened the door for a lot of people, for someone like Malcolm Jenkins to speak to Congress.”
Blake called James something Donald Trump never would.
“LeBron is an extremely inspirational and influential figure, championing causes,” Blake said. “Kaepernick is a good quarterback who got to the Super Bowl; he’s not Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. LeBron is, and then some. He’s the best player, the face of the NBA, the absolute pinnacle of success.
“No one is going to cut LeBron or kick him out of the NBA. He has such a big national voice. He has a ripple effect, too. A role player on his team may speak out about social justice because LeBron has made it OK. LeBron and Steph Curry are very important that way.”
Blake barked back at people who said, hey, it’s easy for LeBron to underwrite the cost of a school in his hometown.
“I don’t care who you are, $40 million is a big check to write,” Blake said. “In my opinion, (Secretary of Education) Betsy DeVos has done nothing to help education, whereas LeBron, without the formal education that DeVos and Trump have had, has done more for education than they have, with his own money. To be criticized and say he won’t sit down with Donald Trump, I respect him for that opinion.
“LeBron is doing what needs to be done, changing lives. Those kids have basically have won the lottery going to that school, getting their education paid through college. Amazing. To get criticized by someone because you haven’t been complimentary of (them) reminds me of a sandbox. ‘Mean to me? I’m mean to you. I’ll throw a rock at you.’ It’s in no way presidential. It’s not even adult behavior.”
Asked if there was a way to get away from the heated rhetoric about the anthem and back on police relations, Blake went straight to education.
“Making sure there truly is a difference in how they are trained,” Blake said. “Possibly a way of doing a psychological profile. I said it after my incident and I say it now, most cops are doing their job the right way. There is a small percentage that are not. They make it very difficult for those who are.”
A police watchdog group recommended that the police officer who misidentified Blake and slammed him to the ground in front of a hotel Trump rebuilt in 1980 should have lost 10 vacation days. He lost five. In June, Blake called the lack of meaningful punishment indicative of a broken disciplinary system.
“I’m not going to trust the next police officer who stops me because of what happened to me,” Blake said. “That makes their jobs tough, if I’m nervous and they’re nervous. They obviously deal with difficult and dangerous situations.
“But the ones who are tarnishing the badge need to be punished. They don’t need to lose five vacation days. The need to be fired, to find a different line of work. They shouldn’t be allowed to terrorize citizens, arrest them for no reason. They shouldn’t be allowed to have that kind of power if they’re not psychologically capable of handling it.
“It’s a very serious issue of accountability. They can’t go around and always fall back on ‘I was afraid.’ When Terence Crutcher got killed (in Tulsa, Okla., in 2016), the police officer was yards away and he had his hands up, but she said she feared for her life because he looked like a ‘bad dude.’ Then you shouldn’t be a police officer. It’s tragic for his family. It’s tragic for America to think that’s OK. To me, that’s a murder. Just because you’re a police officer, you should not be able to get away with murder.”
We know what LeBron thinks. Would James Blake sit down with Trump?
“I don’t know,” Blake said. “If I thought I could make a difference. With all I’ve seen with him, I don’t think it would make a difference. It’s probably a waste of time.”