Amid protests in Rochester, Blue Jays' Davis seeks to be agent for change

The Toronto Blue Jays' Jonathan Davis. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

TORONTO -- The ongoing protests in Rochester, N.Y., over the death of Daniel Prude, a Black man who suffocated after being restrained by police March 23, had yet to start when Jonathan Davis left the Toronto Blue Jays’ alternate training site to join the club’s taxi squad Sept. 1. It was a day later that Prude’s family shared disturbing body-cam footage from officers at the scene, details of which had been kept from the public for five months, triggering a series of demonstrations that are now in their second weekend.

Davis learned of Prude’s death Sept. 3, after the Blue Jays arrived in Boston for a recent series against the Red Sox, coming across the video and hearing from teammates that the club shifted its alternate training site from Rochester to Buffalo while the club was on the road (they returned to Rochester on Monday). Some protests were taking place around City Hall and the Public Safety Building, which both sit between Frontier Field and the hotel the team is staying at.

As Davis processed yet another senseless death of a Black man at the hands of police, and the chaos and destruction that came out of the Rochester protests, all Davis could think of was how beneficial protest can be, “if you have the right heart and you have the right intent.” He thought of society’s pervasive racism and bigotry, and how Black people “have been afflicted and have endured a lot,” and when that happens, “a lot of times people have hate built up in their heart.”

“It's tough when you feel like you have to start 10 steps behind,” says Davis. “But at the same time, I also take the perspective where I believe in Jesus, and I believe in love, and I believe in oneness and unity. And I think that if we could all treat people like we want to be treated, this world would be a better place, man. At the end of the day, it's about the content of the heart and the character of the heart. And I think there's a lot of hate on both sides. And that's kind of what we're seeing playing out right now in the world.”

For that reason, the 28-year-old born and raised in Camden, Ark., who now resides in Hattiesburg, Miss., is trying to stop what he sees as the constant cycle of negativity feeding the current polarized, highly politicized and largely counter-productive discourse.

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Protesters gather at the site of Daniel Prude's death in Rochester, N.Y. (Ted Shaffrey/AP)[/caption]

Davis says he has had racial profiling incidents with police, but he doesn’t like sharing them because that’s not where he wants his own focus to be. “I know it's going to happen. I know it has happened. But that's on an individual basis,” he says, stressing that painting all officers with the same brush only contributes to the problem, and he wants to be part of the solution.

“People aren't taking the time to have empathy. People don't want to see the other person's side, the other person's point of view,” says Davis. “It's hard to see what I view as our leaders in terms of our police-officer system take a back seat in a sense, and I would say use excuses for what's going on. I believe that as leaders, you're put in a position to be the bigger person. Training goes into that. Character goes into that. Integrity goes into that. It's a deep topic, man, and I don't think anybody has necessarily the right answer.

"But at the end of the day, it comes down to love. When you're able to put somebody else before yourself, when you're able to try to feel out the other person before we come to assumptions, even if we don't agree on the same topic. You don't have to agree to love somebody. That's where I'm at, man.”

So, while he attended a protest in Columbia, Miss., during the pandemic shutdown after the killing of George Floyd back in May, appalled that anyone could treat another person that way, that was “really just about speaking the truth on the matter.”

Davis is bothered when people point to Floyd’s background as a justification for the use of lethal force, wisely pointing out that “it's understood, as a cop, you're going to deal with people like that. You're going to face different circumstances. But that's the reason why you're a cop, to handle those situations properly.”

Prude was in the midst of a mental health episode and under the influence of PCP when his brother called police for help in bringing him home safely. Officers encountered him walking naked and shouting that he had the coronavirus, but he was initially co-operative. After being handcuffed, Prude began spitting and the officers covered his head with a spit hood, in part to protect them from his saliva amid the pandemic. As a struggle ensued, the video shows the officers holding him down with his head pushed into the ground. The Monroe County medical examiner’s autopsy ruled the death a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”

Prude died when his family took him off life support March 30, unaware of the circumstances that led to his death until they secured the body-cam videos through a freedom of information request.

“I know police officers that do a great job, man,” says Davis. “But just like you have a good person and a bad person, you have good cops and you have bad cops, you have good politicians and you have bad politicians, you have good teachers and you have bad teachers. It's just a matter of that person. I don't go into too much detail about the bad things that happen.

“I want honestly to be an agent for the solution.”

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Jonathan Davis signing autographs in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)
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To that end, Davis has been an active participant in the Blue Jays’ internal efforts to better understand systemic issues around race, applauding the club’s efforts at encouraging people to “just have a conversation, just hear a person out,” since “that's half the battle.”

“Now you're able to empathize with that person,” he adds. “Now you're able to allow change to come about.”

Still, Davis understands that meaningful societal change will ultimately come from lawmakers, not sports teams, although there are certainly improvements to be made around the leagues.

Asked about his own experiences in professional baseball and whether he felt being Black left him 10 steps behind in the game, he pauses before saying, “that's a pretty tough question.”

“If you're very talented, you will have a better chance at making it in this game,” Davis continues. “For a lot of us, though, we have to be on our P's and Q's. We have to look the part, you have to dress the part, you have to talk to the part. That's just how it is. Not saying that shouldn't be the standard for everybody, but I'm saying in terms of me as a Black man in our culture, I think it's very hard for me to express who I am in this game.”

In part, that’s because there are so few African Americans in the majors, not only on the field but also in the dugout as coaches and managers, and in the various roles of the front office.

The Blue Jays are relatively diverse in their dugout with a Latino manager and third base coach, along with an Asian coach, but they have few Black leaders, with triple-A position coach Devon White and player development special assistant Tim Raines the most prominent.

That lack of representation carries an impact from the grassroots level, where kids don’t engage with the sport as much as they might since they don’t see themselves reflected on TV, to the pro game where currently Dusty Baker in Houston and Dave Roberts are the only African American managers in the majors.

"I don't want to sit here and act like every job should be Black. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that there has to be some reason why (there aren’t more),” says Davis. “I mean, for me, how do you have a seven-time Gold Glover at triple-A? Me personally, I think that would be the greatest asset. Who better to learn from than him? Not discrediting anybody else because I know there are many people that could probably fill that job. But I'm just saying in terms of the conversation that we're having, that's what I mean when it comes to representation.”

Davis fell in love with baseball as a child, raised with his grandfather James Ray Davis’ stories from his days as a Negro Leagues third baseman. His dad, Jacovis Ray Davis, was more into football and basketball but remembers the way his son would throw a ball on the roof of their house and then run around the other side to see if he could snare it before it touched the ground. “That's when my dad knew I was going to be a baseball player,” says Davis.

Eventually, he moved into travel ball, an expensive opportunity that pushes the sport out of reach in underprivileged communities. From there he progressed to high school ball, where he was recruited to play at the University of Central Arkansas, performing well enough to be selected by the Blue Jays in the 15th round of the 2013 draft.

It’s a pathway that’s inaccessible to too many.

“The Players Alliance was formed to help our communities and help baseball in our community, to help mentor kids who do get the opportunity to play this game,” says Davis. “A lot of times as African Americans, as Black people, we don't have that guidance. And that's what we are missing, that history. You look at Latin players, a lot of times those guys, they come from a good foundation. They are disciplined when it comes to the game. They're taught the game. They are taught how to manoeuvre. They are taught how to be respectful and operate within the game. Things like that are a difference-maker in terms of being a professional. That's the type of stuff I mean when I say we're kind of behind in terms of the game.”

Davis is trying to make the most of his current opportunity with the Blue Jays. He made his season debut Tuesday, hitting a two-run homer that carried the day in a 2-1 win over the New York Yankees. His grandfather and father watched it together after James Ray’s latest round of chemotherapy for prostate cancer.

“That was a pretty cool moment they got to see live,” Davis says of the homer.

What all three generations of the Davis family would also like to see are more firm moves toward erasing racial injustice. Athletes may be helping in bringing attention to issues of inequality, but eventually governments and police departments will have to act for progress to be made.

“I really think that change is going to come when we have a change of heart, first and foremost, starting from a top down,” says Davis. “That's really where the change comes, from the people who are making laws, the people who are setting the standards in our country, because anytime you can get on TV and just see people act out like that man, it is not good. There's so much negativity going on and we're constantly fed that non-stop. And that's one of the reasons why I don't really like speaking on what has happened, even though it did. I want to stay in a positive mind as much as I can, because that affects how we view other people, that affects the way we treat other people in life, regardless of whether you know it or not.

“That's really where we need to start.”

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