Breathless …

“I can’t breathe!”
~Eric Garner

Uneven bars

When I was in the 4th grade, I decided that I would teach myself to master a daring playground move known as the “death drop.” To accomplish this feat, I would need to climb to the top of the uneven bars, balance my weight while sitting atop the bar, cross my arms across my chest, propel myself backward, hope to GOD that my momentum would carry me in a full circle, and, ideally, land on my feet. WHY this was something I wanted to do, I will never know! But I will never forget the day I decided to try the move for the first time. It was recess time, and the playground monitors were few. I took the belt from around my waist and wrapped it just above my knees to keep my skirt from flying up and flashing the whole playground (Questionable reasoning, but modesty IS the best policy). I climbed up the uneven bars, positioned myself atop the highest bar, crossed my arms across my chest, closed my eyes, hurled myself backwards and hoped to God that I would fly!

I slammed to the ground HARD, from 5 feet in the air. The impact knocked the wind out of my lungs. For a moment, I felt nothing; I heard nothing. I didn’t even blink. Then it came, the pain of the impact. My back, my neck, every inch of my body ached. When my (normally indifferent) sister ran over to ask me what had happened, tears ran down my face, and I gasped for every breath, “I can’t breathe!”

Breathless … That is how I felt last summer when I heard the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, and when I watched Fruitvale Station and remembered the senseless killing of an unarmed and handcuffed Oscar Grant. I felt it last Monday when the grand jury failed to indict the officer that shot an unarmed Mike Brown, and again yesterday when another grand jury failed to indict the police officer that killed an unarmed Eric Garner with a chokehold.

Hearing those decisions was like slamming to the ground, from 5 feet in the air, all the wind knocked out of my lungs, paralyzed for a moment, just before I gasp for breath.

I was always taught that actions have consequences. You have the freedom to make choices, but this freedom does not absolve you of the consequences of your actions (e.g., my “death drop” experience). Senseless killings are an outrage! This is true whenever they happen, because human lives have value. (“What about gangs?” and “What about black-on-black crime?” trolls, please have a seat. I will address your concerns momentarily). Senseless killings are outrageous. They are always a problem. This is true no matter the city, country, year, time, crime, or race of the perpetrator or victim. What I have always taken for granted is that people that senselessly take the life of another human being will be held accountable for their actions. That the criminal justice system will punish actions that are in fact criminal. People are routinely charged for actions that society has deemed unacceptable: stealing, violent physical assault, animal cruelty, narcotics trafficking, tax evasion. When someone crosses the line of societal acceptability, we demand justice. What I infer in the case when justice is not demanded is that the behavior has been deemed socially acceptable.

Over the past few years, a series of real-life death penalties have been handed out to unarmed black men for petty crimes, or even no crime at all. The narrative is always the same, “I was afraid … I felt threatened … I had no choice … He had it coming … Any REASONABLE person would do the same thing!” My outrage doesn’t stem from the individual actions or excuses. The George Zimmermans and Darren Wilsons (and countless nameless faceless others!) would not scare me so much if I were confident that their actions would have consequences, that society would deem the senseless killing of unarmed people unacceptable. After the Ferguson grand jury failed to return an indictment against him, Darren Wilson said in a televised interview (for which he was reportedly paid 6 figures!!) that, if he had to do it all over again, HE.WOULDN’T.DO.ANYTHING.DIFFERENTLY. If, knowing what he knows now, he would have still shot an unarmed teenager 6 times (!), and he said “Yes”!

That is what shakes me to my core. That after senselessly ending the life of another human being, and evading accountability, you would not change a thing. After the news of the Ferguson grand jury’s decision broke, one of my Facebook friends posted something like, “I’m so glad they didn’t convict an innocent man!” Societal acceptability. I was breathless.

If someday we have a conversation about these issues, please do not have the audacity to look me in my face and tell me that “justice was served,” “Travyon Martin was a ‘clean shoot’,” “Eric Garner died because of his own health problems,” “Mike Brown should have just moved to the sidewalk,” or your red herring, straw man, non-sequitur argument of the day. When the killing of unarmed citizens is systematically justified by the legal system, we have much bigger concerns than being crowned National Facebook Debate Champion.

Do not try to silence me or convince me that I should just take everything into stride. Do not tell me to trust a hopelessly failing legal system. When I say that something needs to change, I am not just talking about the legal system; I am also talking about you and me.

Each time one of these events happens, I take a step back and look at the conversations that are happening about the cases. And I can’t breathe! Lines are drawn, deeply, and people see two very distinct realities. People who view the results as acceptable, and people who do not. There is so much hatred, thinly-veiled bigotry, stubborn ignorance, and unapologetic indifference to human life. Every time, my breath becomes labored … and I feel my blood pressure rising.

When this moment in history is reviewed, let it be clear which side I am on: I am on the side that finds legal and social approval of senseless killings unacceptable, and I am for giving a voice to those who have been silenced!

#ICantBreathe #JusticeForTrayvon #JusticeForEricGarner #JusticeForMikeBrown #JusticeForSamirReed, #JusticeForJohnCrawford #OscarGrant #SeanBell #AmadouDiallo #BlackLivesMatter #FergusonLORDFerguson and #Sanford and #Oakland and #StatenIsland and #Cleveland and #Ayotzinapa and #Palestine #AllLivesMatter #WeHaveWorkToDo #Breathless

-bmjphd