The great Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball, once commented that “Life is not a spectator sport.” You could remain on the sidelines or in the stands, but in order to be an agent for change, you had to be on the field.
During his career, Robinson endured years of abuse and humiliation due to the color of his skin. He was forced to sleep in separate hotels from his teammates due to Jim Crow laws. Fans and fellow players alike hurled racist invective at him when he was at bat. At one point, he sustained a major injury while playing first base when an opposing player gave him a seven-inch gash from his shoe spikes on Robinson’s leg. Yet he persevered, and today is credited with paving the way for integration in Major League Baseball.
Despite the progress seen in Robinson’s lifetime, the specter of racism that was so prevalent in his day still haunts many of our institutions in 2020.
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has unleashed a justified wave of anger throughout the country, and reflects the widespread feeling among Black Americans that this country has had its knee on our necks for too long. Righteous protests have sprung up demanding a comprehensive re-thinking of how we police in America. But the actions of Officer Derek Chauvin and the other officers involved in George Floyd’s murder, along with the excessive use of force used against protesters in the days since, have fed a pernicious view that will ultimately impede positive reform: the idea that police are fundamentally racist, and any person of color who joins is a traitor to their own race.
I know this sentiment well. When I was a 15-year-old living in South Jamaica, Queens, my brother and I were arrested on criminal trespassing charges. Shortly after, we were picked up from school by officers and brought to the 103rd Precinct. Out of the blue, one of the officers — both of them were White — asked us if we felt like a beatdown. They then took us to a room downstairs and kicked us in the groin repeatedly. It was only after a Black officer poked his head in the room and said “that’s enough” that the beating finally stopped.
For a week after, I urinated blood every day. I promised myself repeatedly that if it continued, I’d tell my mother what had happened. Every blare of a siren brought back traumatic memories of the experience, and the glee the officers took in emasculating my brother and me.
A few years later, I was approached by a group of Black leaders in the community with a proposition that sounded crazy to me at the time, as it probably would to many people of color today: Join the NYPD. Change the department from within.
The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. So I joined with a clear mission in mind, and that mission sustained me throughout my 22 years on the force. I committed myself to rectifying the systemic issues the department was facing internally, including the lack of diversity in the upper ranks, and externally, including the racially disparate ways policies like stop and frisk were being enforced.
At times, my task felt like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill. The entrenched hierarchy within police departments is often resistant to change — and when it comes, it comes slowly. On top of internal resistance, I often faced skepticism and even outright hostility from some in the African-American community, who despite my advocacy saw me as the enemy. But I retired from the NYPD at the rank of captain knowing that I and my fellow reformers had made a positive difference, drawing attention to issues like the racially disparate enforcement of stop-and-frisk, and opening the door to fellow change-makers.
Take Edwin Raymond. A Lieutenant in the NYPD, Raymond joined a group of 11 minority colleagues in 2016 to expose a policy of targeting minorities in a transit patrol unit. He and his fellow plaintiffs allege they were explicitly told to go after Black and Latino people for low-level crimes such as jumping turnstiles, and avoid “soft” targets such as Whites and Asians. When they objected to this clearly unjust policy, they claimed they faced retaliation. They are now suing the department for discrimination, and the issue of quota-based policinghas been forced into public view.
People like Lieutenant Raymond and his colleagues are carrying the torch for reform. The protesters on the streets now are forcing a long-overdue conversation about racism in policing. But in order to effect meaningful change, we have to dispel this damaging idea thatLieutenant Raymond and others like him are Uncle Toms. Change comes from within.
Case in point: in 1947, Jackie Robinson debuted as first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The following year, the Negro National League — a symbol of baseball’s segregation — disbanded.
Eric Adams is borough president of Brooklyn. He served 22 years in the New York City Police Department (NYPD), retiring at the rank of captain, as well as represented District 20 in the New York State Senate from 2006 until his election as borough president in 2013.