This story takes place on a sweaty summer night in a big American city. A black jazz musician, a trumpet player, was between sets at a downtown jazz club. He was standing on the sidewalk, taking some air, when a white policeman came up and told him to move on.
“Move on, for what?” the musician remembered saying. “I’m working downstairs,” and he pointed to the jazz club’s marquee: “That’s my name up there.”
“I don’t care where you work,” the cop told him. “If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.”
A crowd began forming. That’s when another cop, a detective, moved in, hitting the musician over the head, drawing blood. The musician was cuffed and taken to jail.
These days stories like this, complete with video, make the news on a regular basis.
Except this story happened in 1959. The musician was Miles Davis, and the city was New York. Davis was playing at Birdland; earlier that year he had completed recording his album, Kind of Blue. You can find a picture of him with his head bandaged, still wearing his blood-splattered jacket here.
I bring this story up not because it is strange or extraordinary, but because it has become so grindingly familiar.
And, sadly, because there was a time — not that long ago — when a white person like me might have been tempted to wonder what it was that Miles Davis did to provoke the cops who attacked him.
I think of Miles Davis, circa 1959, when I see the recent dashcam video of a Texas cop arresting Sandra Bland. Bland was pulled over for improperly signaling a lane change. The next thing you know, the cop is bellowing in her face, threatening to “light you up.” She winds up being thrown to the ground and arrested. She was then taken to jail, where she was later found dead in her cell. The police there claim she hung herself.
Did Bland do anything to deserve anything more than a traffic ticket? Besides, that is, being black? Justice Department statistics indicate that police are 31 percent more likely to pull over a black driver than a white driver; black drivers are also more often targeted for minor traffic offenses than whites.
Black citizens may not know these statistics, but they undoubtedly know the experience of “driving while black” well enough to feel sick and tired when it happens to them. Sick and tired enough, surely, to betray some attitude. Under the circumstances, that seems less like belligerence than righteous indignation.
The proliferation of video cameras on our streets and in our neighborhoods reveals a gulf between black and white experience that has been hidden for generations. Black people have known this; white people haven’t needed — or wanted — to learn about it.
“Now I would have expected this kind of bullshit about resisting arrest and all back in St. Louis,” recalled Miles Davis. “But not here in New York City, which is supposed to be the slickest, hippest city in the world. But then, again, I was surrounded by white folks and I have learned that when that happens, if you’re black, there is no justice. None.”