#WhiteHistoryMonth: When the NYPD beat up Miles Davis

Miles Davis spent March and April of 1959 recording the astounding Kind of Blue. A few months later he was left with blood streaming from his head after being attacked by NYPD officers right outside his own show. Here’s Davis recounting what happened that night in Miles: The Autobiography (1989), which he wrote with Quincy Troupe.

I had just finished doing an Armed Forces Day broadcast, you know, Voice of America and all that bullshit. I had just walked this pretty white girl named Judy out to get a cab. She got in the cab, and I’m standing there in front of Birdland wringing wet because it’s a hot, steaming, muggy night in August. This white policeman comes up to me and tells me to move on. At the time I was doing a lot of boxing and so I thought to myself, I ought to hit this motherfucker because I knew what he was doing. But instead I said, “Move on, for what? I’m working downstairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis,” and I pointed to my name on the marquee all up in lights.

He said, “I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.”

I just looked at his face real straight and hard, and I didn’t move. Then he said, “You’re under arrest!” He reached for his handcuffs, but he was stepping back. Now, boxers had told me that if a guy’s going to hit you, if you walk toward him you can see what’s happening. I saw by the way he was handling himself that the policeman was an ex-fighter. So I kin of leaned in closer because I wasn’t going to give him no distance so he could hit me on the head. He stumbled, and all his stuff fell on the sidewalk, and I thought to myself, Oh, shit, they’re going to think that I fucked with him or something. I’m waiting for him to put the handcuffs on, because all his stuff is on the ground and shit. Then I move closer so he won’t be able to fuck me up. A crowd had gathered all of a sudden from out of nowhere, and this white detective runs in and BAM! hits me on the head. I never saw him coming. Blood was running down the khaki suit I had on.  Then I remember [journalist] Dorothy Kilgallen coming outside with this horrible look on her face — I had known Dorothy for years and I used to date her good friend, Jean Bock — and saying, “Miles, what happened?” I couldn’t say nothing. Illinois Jacquet [the saxophonist] was there, too.

It was almost a race riot, so the police got scared and hurried up and got my ass out of there and took me to the 54th Precinct where they took pictures of me bleeding and shit. So, I’m sitting there, madder than a motherfucker, right? And they’re saying to me in the station, “So you’re the wiseguy, huh?” Then they’d bump up against me, you know, try to get me mad so they could probably knock me upside my head again. I’m just sitting there, taking it all in, watching every move they make.

[…]

It makes the front pages of the New York newspapers, and they repeat the charges in their headlines. There was a picture, which became famous, of me leaving the jail with this bandage all over my head (they had taken me to the hospital to have my head stitched up), and [Davis’ wife] Frances — who had come down to see me when they were transferring me downtown — walking in front of me like a proud stallion.

When Frances had come down to that police station and saw me all beat up like that, she was almost hysterical, screaming. I think the policemen started to think they had made a mistake, a beautiful woman like this screaming over this nigger. And then Dorothy Kilgallen came down and then wrote about it in her column the next day. The piece was very negative against the police, and that was of some help to my cause.

Now I would have expected this kind of bullshit about resisting arrest and all back in East St Louis (before the city went all-black), 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.

[…]

Around this time, people — white people — started saying that I was always “angry,” that I was “racist,” or some silly shit like that. Now, I’ve been racist towards nobody, but that don’t mean I’m going to take shit from a person just because he’s white. I didn’t grin or shuffle and didn’t walk around with my finger up my ass begging for no handout and thinking I was inferior to whites. I was living in America, too, and I was going to try to get everything that was coming to me.

Elliot Ross

Elliot Ross is senior editor at Africa is a Country. He tweets at @africasacountry and @futbolsacountry

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