Standing While Black: Apartheid Justice in America

If tennis great James Blake had done the obvious thing and resisted being tackled by an apparent thug on a New York sidewalk who didn’t identify himself as a cop before attacking him, he would probably be dead today like Eric Garner, or at least seriously injured or tased.

Blake, a well-known black athlete who not too long ago was the fourth-ranked tennis player in the world, was just leaning against the front of his hotel in midtown Manhattan when four undercover cops, who claim they “mistook” him for the suspect in an identity-theft scam, walked towards him, whereupon one of them suddenly jumped him, threw him to the ground face first, climbed on top of him, yanked his arms behind his back and cuffed him, in the process causing minor injuries to an elbow and eye (injuries that are no small matter for a tennis pro!).

There is so much wrong with what happened to Blake it’s hard to know where to begin. In a surveillance video, Blake can be seen just resting there on the sidewalk and actually smiling at the men approaching him, he says, because he assumed, as a celebrity, that they were fans who had recognized him and were coming to greet him. Blake, a Harvard grad, was calm and relaxed, not armed, and not at all acting like someone who planned to flee. There was, in other words, absolutely no reason for the officers not to simply identify themselves and ask politely to see his identification. Even then, if at that point they still suspected him, they could have taken him peacefully to the station for questioning, as they would ordinarily do had he been a well-dressed white guy, instead of a well-dressed black guy.

NYPD Chief Bill Bratton has apologized to Blake for the outrageous incident, as has Mayor Bill DeBlasio. At least one of the cops, who was particularly brutal on the video that captured the assault, has been pulled off the street and put on “administrative duties” by the chief, who said he was “disturbed” by the video. But Bratton insists that Blake is wrong to think that what happened to him had anything to do with his race, despite the fact that his assailants were all white.

Bratton certainly knows better. His statement that race wasn’t involved is laughable. He knows that the cop who tackled Blake instead of identifying himself a cop and asking politely for Blake’s identification has a history of complaints about abusive behavior — for which neither the cop nor Bratton has ever apologized. Want to guess the race of the victims of that abuse?

How many white bankers or stockbrokers get thrown on the ground and cuffed when they are busted for their crimes? Was Bernie Madoff tacked and pushed face down on the sidewalk while he was cuffed? Think about it — have you ever seen a well-heeled white guy of Blake’s stature and appearance treated that way when police need to question, or even arrest him? Even mobster John Gotti, known as the Dapper Don, wasn’t  tackled like that when he was busted.

It just doesn’t happen. In fact, well-healed white guys, if they’re cuffed at all during an arrest, generally don’t even have their hands cuffed behind their backs, where they become vulnerable to falls. While police always claim that painful and dangerous procedure is “regulation procedure,” but the tonier white suspects always seem to get to keep their hands cuffed in front of them, where they can discretely drape a jacket over them to hide the embarrassing looking cuffs from any lurking paparazzi camera.

There is, in other words, an incredible double standard in American policing, and Bratton and DeBlasio both know it. In fact, this dichotomy should properly be called apartheid.

Just recently, in a powerful essay, Bradley Burton, an editor of Ha’aretz, a leading Israeli newspaper, wrote that after years of denial, he felt he had to accuse his country, Israel, of being an apartheid nation.  He wrote:

I used to be one of those people who took issue with the label of apartheid as applied to Israel. I was one of those people who could be counted on to argue that, while the country’s settlement and occupation policies were anti-democratic and brutal and slow-dose suicidal, the word apartheid did not apply.

I’m not one of those people any more.  Not after the last few weeks.

Not after terrorists firebombed a West Bank Palestinian home, annihilating a family, murdering an 18-month-old boy and his father, burning his mother over 90 percent of her body – only to have Israel’s government rule the family ineligible for the financial support and compensation automatically granted Israeli victims of terrorism, settlers included.

I can’t pretend anymore. Not after Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, explicitly declaring stone-throwing to be terrorism, drove the passage of a bill holding stone-throwers liable to up to 20 years in prison.

The law did not specify that it targeted only Palestinian stone-throwers. It didn’t have to.

Just one week later, pro-settlement Jews hurled rocks, furniture, and bottles of urine at Israeli soldiers and police at a West Bank settlement, and in response, Benjamin Netanyahu immediately rewarded the Jewish stone-throwers with a pledge to build hundreds of new settlement homes.

This is what has become of the rule of law. Two sets of books. One for Us, and one to throw at Them. Apartheid.

Writing that in Israel, where right-wing nuts can be pretty threatening to people who take even a modest pro-Palestinian stand, took a lot of guts.

Where are the editors in the US willing to say that the same thing is true of “justice” and law-enforcement in the US?

One can take the analogy to Israel too far. There is no such thing as a Palestinian celebrity in Israel — no Palestinian actors or sports stars who, for example, might be treated with respect and kid gloves by Israeli law enforcement officers the way black celebrities often are in the US. In Israel, all Palestinians are potential victims, with even those who are Israeli citizens legally in a second-class status. But in the US, where supposedly blacks are fully US citizens as much as any white person, they just aren’t treated equally by the law, which tends to assume they are guilty from the get-go, and then treats them as presumptive threats, acting accordingly.

Blake, who said his initial thought was to stay quiet about his scary experience with New York’s Not-So-Fine, after talking about it with his wife, decided to go public and to demand an apology in view of the huge national uproar over an epidemic of police killings of unarmed blacks and other people of color. He decided that making an issue over this incident would help to expose the truth about law enforcement in America.

He showed, in doing that, that we too, like Israel, are an apartheid society.

Black Americans, and Latinos as well — really anyone with dark skin as an elderly man visiting from India discovered in Alabama last year when he was thrown to the ground by a cop for the crime of taking a walk in broad daylight in his immigrant son’s suburban neighborhood and ended up with a serious neck injury that left him unable to walk — have to worry for their safety and indeed their life in any situation involving a police officer. Violence is not only the operative response of police when dealing with people of color. It is condoned and excused both by police higher-ups and by prosecutors and the courts, except in rare exceptions where photographic or video evidence of criminality is overwhelming, and even then not always.

But it’s not just the cops. Prosecutors and the courts are apartheid zones in their own right, where people who are supposed to be presumed innocent are terrorized into copping guilty pleas even when they’re innocent because of threats made to lock them up on far more serious charges for which they could serve lengthy or even life sentences. This is why America has become a prison nation with more people in jail or out of jail after having served time than any other country in the world, including China. And police, prosecutorial and judicial apartheid is the only explanation for why, despite being only 13% of the US population, blacks account for a staggering 60% of the 2.1 million men and women locked up in US jails and prisons.

Blake, as he has said, will not be one of those people because he’s wealthy and famous, but he, at least, knows that he could easily have been one of them had he not had money and celebrity.

As he said of his decision to go public and to demand an apology from the NYPD and the City of New York, “I have resources to get to the bottom of this. I have a voice. But what about someone who doesn’t have those resources and doesn’t have a voice?”

Well, ask Eric Garner’s family: killed by a white cop for being uncooperative, though hardly violent, when being arrested for selling loose single cigarettes on the street to support his family.

Or ask any of those hundreds of thousands of black, hispanic, native American and other men and women of color languishing in prison, most of them for minor or non-violent crimes that white people usually managed to get off for, or at least avoid jail for.

Apartheid justice. That’s what we’re dealing with in the United States. We need to admit it, and we need to put an immediate end to it.

CounterPunch contributor DAVE LINDORFF is a producer along with MARK MITTEN on a forthcoming feature-length documentary film on the life of Ted Hall and his wife of 51 years, Joan Hall. A Participant Film, “A Compassionate Spy” is directed by STEVE JAMES and will be released in theaters this coming summer. Lindorff has finished a book on Ted Hall titled “A Spy for No Country,” to be published this Fall by Prometheus Press.