The outrageous police treatment of Venus Williams

July 14, 2017
Venus Williams is brought to tears during a media conference at Wimbledown on July 3.

My bias is real. When it comes to tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, they have never been just athletes to me, but people. I have felt an imperative to defend them against detractors, know-nothings and dime-store bigots.

The reasons are obvious: they were once two Black teenagers from the public courts of Compton, treated with contempt — of both a race and class variety — by their sport. They not only survived but thrived.

Over the past two decades, as the Williams sisters have moved from champions to icons, my knee-jerk defensive posture has moved decisively toward older sister Venus. No matter what gasbags like John McEnroe and his mainstream defenders belch, Serena is securely recognised as one of the great athletes of the last century. She has two dozen Grand Slam titles to show for it.

But Venus, who at 37 is still bludgeoning opponents half her age, has not won a Grand Slam title since 2008.

This is best explained not only by her sister’s dominance but also the fact that she was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome in 2011, a brutal autoimmune illness affecting the joints and causing fatigue. It is a disease defined by chronic pain. The fact that she continues to play and win matches has created a different kind of iconography than that crafted by Serena.

That is why the treatment of Venus Williams by the Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, police department in recent days makes me want to run to the barricades.

This story begins with unspeakable tragedy. On June 9, 78-year-old Jerome Barson was killed and his wife, Linda, terribly injured after Venus’s SUV — going five miles an hour — entered an intersection, colliding with the Barsons’ car.

The immediate public statements by police, before any kind of investigation was completed, claimed Williams was “at fault for violating the right of way”. They recklessly announced to the world — in our low-information, 140-character celebrity culture — that Venus Williams had effectively killed an elderly man.

Then at Wimbledon on July 3, the tennis media pressed her to discuss how she felt being “responsible” for Barson’s death. Williams broke down in tears, saying: “There are really no words to describe, like, how devastating and — yeah. I’m completely speechless. It’s just…” She put her head in her hands and left the interview table before returning, looking like a hybrid of frayed nerves and steely resolve, to complete the interview.

Later, in a Facebook post, she wrote: “I am devasted [sic] and heartbroken by this accident. My heartfelt condolences go out to the family and friends of Jerome Barson, and I continue to keep them in my thoughts and prayers.”

Then, after all of this, the Palm Beach Gardens police issued a statement effectively saying, “Whoops”. They exonerated Williams of any fault and video released by TMZ confirms these findings.

Amid this trauma, Venus advanced to the July 15 final at Wimbledon. Her ability to persevere is stunning, but this is not a game. There is something very wrong about this entire scenario in Palm Beach Gardens.

For the police to state publicly that Venus was responsible for this death in advance of the facts is a gross dereliction of duty. Palm Beach Gardens is a place of gated communities, luxury golf courses and wealth. Both Williams sisters call it home.

It is difficult to imagine a scenario where other high-profile Palm Beach Gardens residents — such as pro golf star Rory McIlroy — would be treated in such a way.

I spoke with criminal defence attorney Steven Gilmore about the case. He said that the actions of the police seemed bizarre from the start.

“It is a national trend that police officers do not issue public, definitive-sounding findings at the scene of accidents in advance of investigations because it draws them into civil suits,” Gilmore said. “It is also very odd, there was a kiosk and video camera at the scene and they did not look at the video tape before finding fault with Ms Williams.”

On the prospects of civil action against the police for implicating Venus in Barson’s death, he said: “This is an act of negligence by police, but they have qualified immunity from most acts of negligence. That’s the reality.”

This isn’t about Venus Williams’ “deserving better”. It’s about how police departments treat Black women in this country. Even living in one of the Palm Beach Gardens gated communities does not offer sanctuary.

It will be more than understandable if Williams just wants to get on with her life and put this ordeal behind her.

But if she attempts to publicly challenge how the Palm Beach Gardens police handled this case, she won’t be walking alone.

[Abridged from The Nation.]

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