I Can’t Breathe
Prejudice – one of the most awful words our language still holds, and perhaps one of the most overlooked. It should cause *far* more offense than it does, but there is such a heritage which comes with it: racisim is not only inherited and passed on from generation to generation, but so too is the apathy which allows it to flourish. And today’s guest has had enough. Joy is one of those wonderful people who CARES, so very deeply, about the social issues our world faces. She writes ‘funny’ as a matter of course, but when she writes from her passion for us all to get along; for the human race to stop hurting one another and realise that we’re all in it together, WATCH OUT!
The pen is mightier than the sword, but no match for a gun. Riots have started and it’s time to stop the shooting. So Joy wrote, and she is MIGHTY. I hope you love her words and her soul as much as I do. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you JOY – Lizzi
The United States is in a tough place at the moment. Horrible stories of violence and brutality are driving us apart, forcing us to take sides. Forcing me to want to shut down from reality. From society. I don’t want to get into many the specifics of any of the cases. That’s not really what the reaction (and the reaction to the reactions) is about. If you don’t know what I mean; recently we have seen civil unrest, a number of peaceful protests, and some mob-mentality reactions filled with angry, violent rage. The response to that public outcry was typical from certain people in my social media feed:
Victim-blaming and bashing the people who are confused, angry, at the end of their rope.
One instance that sparked the fire was the publication of the court judgement of a policeman who shot and killed an unarmed black teen. (Michael Brown, if you want to look up the facts of the case.)
People kept pointing out that he was a large teen, as if that justifies his death. He was walking in the middle of the street, as if that justified the weaponized response. He may have resisted arrest, as if being shot 6 times from 150 feet away, WHILE HE WAS HOLDING HIS HANDS UP IN THE AIR is an appropriate reaction. A video was released of the boy taking cigarillos from a store, as if the law states that should be met with an immediate death by Firing Squad.
I know that people mistakes, all people. Teens; adults; trained professionals; everyone. I maintain this is kind of our thing – to err is human. The difference between the officer’s mistake (overreaction if you prefer) and the teen’s mistake, is that the officer is still alive to tell his side of the story. To move on, to learn, to live and thrive off the many donations he received for his defense. The teen is not. He’s dead just after graduating high school.
This officer lives in an area of the world where people still see the mistakes and the stereotypes of race, more than any individual person or action. The officer was found not guilty, even after autopsy reports provided evidence that negated his original story. The former officer also received so from many donations from like-minded people and groups that he didn’t have to pay a penny for his legal defense, and he actually retired.
This case sparked local outrage that some simply cannot relate to. A lot of people only focus on the violent unrest that resulted from this case. As if the result is the focus, not the many reasons for that rage to exist in the first place. Angry people rioted, burned down businesses and did some damage. Opportunists looted. That is what so many people chose to focus on. Not the horrible injustice. Not the boy killed (in addition to other ‘justifications’) for the color of his skin.
Many people asked “What about peaceful protests”, unaware, I guess, that non-violent protests have been taking place on these issues for decades.
Then when we saw support from some NFL players, who simply raised their hands in support of Michael Brown and were met with complete and utter disgust. Demands that those players be fined, punished and removed from the game. For HOLDING THEIR HANDS UP during a freaking football game.
The civil outrage in Ferguson was not over this one officer, this one unarmed boy who isn’t here to tell his side of the story. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
This is far from the only case of police brutality. A man was recently choked to death ON CAMERA, unarmed and unresisting. We later learned he was selling loose cigarettes on the street. That was his crime, and it was deemed sufficient to warrant being held down in a choke-hold, leading to his death. Cell phone video shows he was forced onto the ground and began gasping for breath, telling the officer ELEVEN times through jumbled gasps “I can’t breathe.”
Those words became a cry of protest around the nation, trending on Twitter, signs and shirts being worn during protests of this brutality. The officer who killed this man faced no punishment.
A Chicago NBA player wore a shirt in warm-up reading “I Can’t Breathe” in protest, and a white reporter tweeted that he was inarticulate and didn’t understand what he was doing.
I can’t even get into the details of the children; like when a 12-year old boy was shot to death by police as he played on a playground, from within their car, before it had even come to a halt, because he was playing with a gun which looked real; like when a young girl was killed in an alley filled with police fire; like when another young girl was killed in her home by police fire; like when an unarmed teen was was killed by a citizen because he was wearing a hoodie. What do these kids have in common? The color of their skin.
These are only the most widely-reported examples. There are more we forget, or that we don’t even hear about because they happen on a day when a snowstorm, or elections, or a possible shortage in chocolate, takes precedent.
What am I very concerned about is the public reaction to these tragedies.
The first thing I hear people say is “What were they doing?”
No reaction to the tragedy of loss of an innocent life – they just need to know if there was a reason for the officer’s actions, as if that makes it alright.
As if a victim can only be a victim as long as they weren’t ‘up to something’ at the time of their death.
The media seem determined to find a picture of the victim from the past, looking scary, or in Mike Brown’s case, holding up a gun. People actually posted that picture and said things like “Here is the boy you’re rioting about.”
As if being photographed holding a gun means that it’s justifiable that he was shot to death, unarmed, with his hands up?
Would these people feel that is acceptable if their child were shot to death? Do they think people deserve to die because during their teen years they were photographed looking menacing, or with a weapon? How very dare they!
The rage and sorrow which must be felt by the families of the victims when faced with such a callous reaction is unimaginable.
We cannot possibly understand the hurt that comes from hearing these stories, again and again and again, each time with the same unjustified death sentence. We cannot comprehend explaining to our children and young adults that they have to be extra careful, because people are afraid of the way they look. We cannot internalize what it must be like to live in a world where negative assumptions are stacked against you every day, from all quarters, or to exist in the knowledge that a face-value judgement could cost you your life.
I don’t want to say that all of our police are bad, they’re absolutely not. Their jobs are dangerous and their lives are often at stake. They have to make snap judgement calls, and sometimes they make mistakes. Everyone does.
But just looking at the 1000-yard overview of the stories and their effects, tells you some things about human nature. I see so many people immediately defend the police officers in these stories before they know the facts.
They look instead at the victims: “What was he doing?”
You can’t tell me that reaction isn’t about skin color: in past cases, we have had similar young people who shot up schools, or a movie theater, actually killing multiple people. But those kids are white, and they get arrested, alive, and brought to court to determine their guilt or innocence.
The public reaction then is, “What went wrong with this kid?” “Was he mentally ill?”, “Did she need help she never got?”, “That’s so sad.” And it is. But the difference is staggering.
I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with the police. When I was around 18 or 19, I was pulled over and told to get out of the car. An officer immediately grabbed my arms, pulled them roughly behind my back, and put me in the back of a police car. He asked for ID, where I was, what I had been doing, where I was going. I was on my way home. No one would answer my questions, talk to me or tell me what was going on. About a half an hour later (one of the longest ½ hours of my life) I was told someone in a car that looked like mine had fled the scene of a crime and I could go.
I was still terrified by the experience, and for a couple years every time I saw a police officer I was immediately scared. But even whilst it was all going on, I never once considered that my very LIFE might be in danger! Because I’m white.
Once an officer pulled over a friend of mine while I was in the car. He said he thought the driver was on a cell phone. I was the one on the phone – the passenger. He wouldn’t listen to anything I said, or even look at me. This officer seemed hell-bent on searching our car. For what? He never said. We were just driving and I was trying to use the phone to get directions to our destination.
He treated us like criminals. He had no reason to search our car, but he did it anyway. He slammed my friend down on the hood of the car and told us not to speak. I shudder to think what he would have done if we had resisted.
But again, I had no fear of injury or assault. It was still a scary feeling knowing that this officer, with his big stick, his gun and his bad attitude, could pretty much do whatever he wanted, but I never for a second worried for my life.
These experiences made me think a different way about the ‘good ole boys’.
I still respect police officers, even after these experiences. Some are pleasant to deal with, others less so, and some are just rotten to the core, but that’s just the diverse nature of humanity. I get that theirs is a tough job I will never fully understand. I appreciate them putting their lives on the line to serve and protect. That doesn’t give them the right to abuse people. And nothing justifies murder.
Even if certain factions want to pretend this isn’t an issue of race, even if they cannot even handle that level of humanity and want to continue life under the protection of fantasy, this is still a matter of police brutality: it should never become socially acceptable for law enforcement officers to start deciding who lives and dies in the moment.
Courts of Law decide innocence or guilt. Police are trained to stop, to arrest, to fire warning shots. I understand that it’s not an exact science. No one is going to hit a moving target 100% of the time. There are things like adrenaline, past experiences, human reaction, that can’t be measured. Courts do their best to determine long after the fact what was just and what was not, and it is their responsibility to weigh up the evidence and pass an appropriate sentence.
In rare, extreme occasions, this sentence may be one which intends to end someone’s life as a consequence of the severity of their crime. Such a sentence is not taken lightly and always creates a public stir.
The public at large isn’t going to look at the facts of each case; we’re not given them. We get a media overview, which usually contains some kind of agenda. But looking at these race-related events from this viewpoint, and taking into account the public reaction to them, the recurring message, backed up by the disparity between the majority of instances of ‘method of dealing with’ and ‘public reaction to’ police and white people, versus police and black people, is clear:
Don’t ever, ever, ever do anything wrong, or make any kind of mistake, or even look like you’re doing something wrong, if you’re black.
I was having a brief talk about this disparity of treatment and public reaction with my son and his friend, and I just wanted to cry. To apologize for all of humanity and our flaws and prejudices. I can’t even imagine how other parents have that same discussion. I can’t begin to conceive of the pain of seeing each hauntingly similar case unfold in the media, and see the repeated, bigoted response from the ignorant masses.
I cannot find a way to look into the faces of my son and his friends, and have a conversation with him which prepares them for the world yet doesn’t cause them to lose hope. I can’t begin to think how much harder that task would be if my son and I were black. Seriously – if you have the words to do it, please let me know! I’ll pass them on!
I can’t even think about it for too long, because it’s too much. It makes me feel so defeated. How do we get past this? How do we prepare today’s youth for tomorrow’s future? How do we combat the inherited ignorance and prejudice of past generations?
The only thing I keep thinking over and over and over, is:
“I Can’t Breathe.”
Joy Christi writes ComfytownChronicles.com and when she’s not bitching about her neighbors, her family, areas of technology, social media and the world at large that piss her off, she is posting light-hearted silliness.
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