Like so many Americans, James Blake was sickened and horrified when he watched the video of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in late May. Because of his personal experience with police violence five years ago, the incident brought back such a painful flood of memories, he found it impossible to sleep through the night.
“I was really sad to think that this person lost their life and it’s going to be a hashtag for two days and be done,” Blake, 40, the newest commentator on ESPN’s crew at the U.S. Open, said in a phone interview Friday. “I was just dispirited and weary that it was going to keep happening.
“Then I was actually encouraged by the protests and the fact that people cared, the fact that it wasn’t gone in two or three days. I am just so happy that this country isn’t numb.”
Before this summer’s various protests and boycotts by athletes, before Colin Kaepernick took a knee on the sideline, Blake introduced many sports fans to the subject of racial profiling and police violence when his trauma-filled encounter with police outside a midtown Manhattan hotel was caught on camera.
Blake, who is African-American, was the nation’s top college tennis player coming out of Harvard in 1999 and became one of the most popular American players of his time, rising as high as No. 4 in the world.
Five years ago this week, Sept. 9, 2015, he was waiting quietly outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel for a car to take him to the U.S. Open when he was tackled, slammed to the ground and handcuffed by a plainclothes New York City police office. Four other officers closed in for support in what police later said was a case of mistaken identity.
Blake said the incident made him into an “accidental activist,” adding that he wasn’t particularly political before it happened.
“I was not someone who spoke out,” he said. “When I called my wife after it happened, I had this athlete mentality. I said ‘I’m OK. I’m going to tough it out.’ But then she asked me, 'What if this happened to me or someone else you loved?' As soon as she said that, a light bulb went off in my head. I can’t let this happen to people I know or people I don’t know. I have to use my platform.”
Blake took his story to the media and received formal apologies from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and police commissioner Bill Bratton. A month later, the Civilian Complaint Review Board found that the officer had used "excessive force" during the incident.
James Frascatore, the officer who tackled Blake, was docked only five vacation days as punishment.
“Five vacation days? It would be comical if it wasn’t so sad,” Blake said.
Blake initially sued the city but decided to drop the suit after the city agreed to create a legal fellowship in his name within the Civilian Complaint Review Board. He has continued to bring awareness of police violence against minorities over the years, including in his book, Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together, published in June 2017.
Blake believes that the graphic nature of the video of Floyd’s death has contributed to causing a massive shift in public opinion.
“It’s not that things are getting worse, it’s that it’s being videotaped now and people can see it,” Blake said. “I think the outrage is bubbling over and hit a tipping point with George Floyd, so now the majority is on board.
“Four years ago when Colin Kaepernick was kneeling for the same cause, people were still changing the narrative. They were saying he was being unpatriotic. He’s being a spoiled, privileged athlete. Now more people are in the majority.”
Blake said he couldn’t be prouder of the activism that athletes showed across the country in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The NBA, WNBA, MLB and MLS postponed games. In tennis, Naomi Osaka declined to play a match in the Western & Southern Open and has been wearing a face mask with a different victim’s name to every match.
“The [Milwaukee] Bucks were incredible in taking the lead in all this,” Blake said. “And Naomi in tennis took a stand, and it really put the pressure on the USTA, ATP and WTA. They all felt it and it took all of 20 minutes before they decided to shut down entirely for the day.”
Blake believes social media and the availability of video are big reasons athletes today are more outspoken than those of the previous generation.
“If you see something and you are outraged, you can tweet it right out there and reach 2 million people on a Tuesday afternoon,” he said “You don’t have to wait for a press conference to make a statement.
"I also think more people are speaking up because more people are willing to listen.”
And that, more than anything, gives Blake hope that this time there will be real change.