“I can’t breathe,” gasped Eric Garner, again and again and again. “I can’t breathe,” he said, as several police officers were on top of him, choking him, pushing his head onto the concrete sidewalk. The man was not resisting arrest; he simply had the temerity to ask a police officer not to touch him. And because he was allegedly selling loose cigarettes, the life was choked out of him.
No one tried to help him or stop the vicious assault, which was ruled a homicide by the coroner. Emergency medical respondents offered no assistance. Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” ought to motivate all Americans, not just African Americans, but Americans of conscience to breathe life and energy into a movement for justice.
Breathing ought to be a simple thing. Air in, air out. It’s not so simple when one’s neck is being choked. Not so simple when one’s spirit is being choked. The image of Eric Garner’s neck in a chokehold, the image of at least four White police officers on top of him, is galling. All the more galling is the invisible choking of spirit that comes when people cannot breathe, cannot speak, and cannot respond to injustice.
To put this in a historical context, how many were as free to speak as Ida B. Wells was when she fought against lynching. Even in her freedom, Wells was threatened and run out of Tennessee. But others feared to speak about lynching for fear of being lynched themselves. Can’t breathe. Think of the many African Americans who have served in our armed forces, treated unfairly, serving nonetheless, often silent.
How can any of us breathe in an atmosphere of compounded injustice? How can we breathe in an atmosphere of hypocrisy, when justice has never been blind? We live in a nation where a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, is shot because he has a toy pellet gun that wasn’t even pointed at police. Hard to breathe when video makes it absolutely clear that it was not necessary for Daniel Pantaleo to place Eric Garner in a chokehold. Hard to breathe when a grand jury comes to an incomprehensible decision, one that defies common sense—and what we saw with our eyes.
Difficult to breathe when an elected official, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chooses to blame Eric Garner’s health for his death. “If he had not had asthma, and a heart condition, and was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died from this,” King told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. King failed to note that use of the chokehold was banned by New York Police Department in 1993. Instead, there is no shame, no condolence in his insensitivity and ignorance. Can’t breathe.
Whether he is svelte or obese, carrying a briefcase or a bag of skittles, wearing a Hermes suit or a hoodie, behaving respectfully or rudely, a Black man’s safety cannot be guaranteed, especially when a White police officer is involved. The mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and wives of these men hold their breath, cannot breathe, except to pray for the safety of their loved ones. Would the system be fairer if a White man walking down Park Avenue had the same fears? Would the protests look different if those who were massacred looked different?
“Can’t breathe” has become a metaphor for the African American condition, juggling the space between hopes and despair, between progress and regress. Who would have thought police violence against African American men would so visibly escalate at a time when our nation’s leader is an African American man. Can President Obama breathe, or is he in a figurative chokehold when he parses words about the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and little Tamir Rice? Our president faced protest when he criticized James Crowley, the White police officer who arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his own house in 2009. Now, Obama offers measured words in response to the outrageousness of grand jury failure to indict.
Attorney General Eric Holder has been less measured in his comments. The day after the Staten Island grand jury exonerated Daniel Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner, Holder announced the Department of Justice’s findings of excessive force by the Cleveland Police Department. Perhaps the Cleveland consent decree will be a first step toward cleaning up excessive police action around the country.
Eric Garner did not have to die. He did not have to stop breathing. Did his last breath bring life to a movement, or did he gasp that last breath in vain?
Julianne Malveaux is a D.C.-based economist and writer and president emerita of Bennett College for Women.
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