Essay: I Can’t Breathe

Vineyarders protest at Five Corners in June. —Lexi Pline

Vineyarders protest police brutality at Five Corners in June. —Lexi Pline

I can’t breathe

These were 46-year-old George Floyd’s last words as he lay face down on a street in Minneapolis, hands cuffed behind his back, as police officer Derrick Chauvin nonchalantly ground his knee into Floyd’s neck, one hand in his pocket — for killing leverage? Two other officers kneeled on Floyd’s back and a fourth looked on, warning passersby not to interfere. The killing did not stop when Floyd had no pulse, but continued for several minutes. They killed George Floyd, then killed him a second time for good measure. It was Memorial Day, 2020.

I can’t breathe

These were the last words of Eric Garner, 43, killed in Staten Island in 2014 by police officer Daniel Panteleo, who put Garner in a chokehold, wrestled him to the ground and choked the life out of him. Four other NYPD officers present compressed Garner’s chest and an emergency medical technician stood by, offering no possibly life-saving assistance.

Dead silence

We will never know what 24-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor’s last words were before she was shot eight times by police executing a no-knock warrant in Louisville in March. Did 12-year-old Tamir Rice speak before he was executed by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2014, for the crime of playing in the park with a toy gun? Or Eleanor Bumpurs, 66, a mentally disturbed Bronx woman wielding a kitchen knife, killed in 1984 with two blasts from a 12-gauge shotgun by police serving an eviction notice. The list of those killed by the police begins with Africans stolen and brought to these shores in 1619. It is long and in ways diverse, covering age, gender, geography, education, class, aspirations, unrealized dreams. What is consistent is that most are Black and Brown women, men, girls, and boys who are more likely to be killed by those wielding the power of the state — call them pattyrollers or police officers — than any other citizens. Absent cellphone video we will never know if they begged for breath, or called for their mother, or said please and sir as they implored the men squeezing the life out of them to stop. Few police officers will be indicted or tried. If they are, odds of conviction are slim. The demonization of Black people that is as American as apple pie, really more so, has for centuries cemented the predatory Black other in the American psyche as someone to be feared, suppressed, and killed to maintain white supremacy and privilege. Will the 8:46 video of Floyd’s murder, or Rayshard Brooks’ killing as he ran away from the Atlanta police, or _________________________  (fill in the most recent name/s), break the chain? Will the tens of thousands of people protesting around the world, this time a truly diverse group, be the beginning of the end? Or once again will the response be simply another breathless silencing?

In the middle of April, a week when the total number of Americans filing for unemployment rose to 22 million, the same week New York added 3,700 previously uncounted COVID-19 deaths to our already devastating total; the same week that Donald Trump declared he has “total” authority over the states, told governors “call your own shots,” and then instructed them to “liberate” their states from protective measures; when he halted U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization in the midst of a global pandemic; in the same week my 97-year-old Uncle Babe in assisted living was restricted to his apartment to avoid possible infection; in that same week I was arrested by the NYPD for writing graffiti.

I’d gone out for food, masked and gloved, a welcome escape from more devastating coronavirus news, even as President Cuomo — er, Governor Cuomo — in his calm daily briefing tells us the numbers are getting better. In Washington Heights where I live, there are fewer people on the streets, most wear masks and gloves. We dance the delicate dance of New York sidewalks associated with making it through crowds: twist and turn, accelerate and slow as we anticipate an opening in the sea of people, dive in and through. In these plague days, we dance not past people but away from them, bob and weave as we try to keep that six-foot distance, stay safe.

The newsstand, the bakery with the delicious tres leche cake, the passport picture place, the store that sells some of everything — shower curtain liners, mailing envelopes, odd, seemingly random assortment of foods — are closed. I fear many will never re-open. I am thankful for the medical professionals, cashiers, MTA workers, delivery people, all the essential workers. I am also angry that this president has brought us to this.

I am preoccupied with plague thoughts when I see the familiar painted green plywood expanse around a storefront behind which work has been suspended. Inspired, I reach in my pocket, take out a stub of pink chalk, and write, TRUMP = PLAGUE. A simple statement, I believe, of fact. His ability to destroy at least one thing daily is nothing new; he replicated and spewed destruction and disease long before he was elected. As president, his white supremacy and power to destroy have been exponentially enabled. Forget the dog whistle. He offers his acolytes the rebel yell of white supremacy.

Before I have a moment to admire my handiwork, I hear the whoop of sirens as two police cars pull up and four cops jump out, boxing me on the corner. Two grab me, frisk me, cuff me behind my back, ask me if I have any weapons — other than words, no — and push me into a police car. I am taken to the NYPD’s 33rd Precinct in Washington Heights. I surrender my sneakers because I don’t want to take out the laces for what I think will be a brief stay. They confiscate my coat because it has interior ties. Thwarting any attempts at suicide? Three hours later, my toes are freezing, I’ve exercised, meditated, tried to do breathing exercises. I cannot help thinking about Sandra Bland, 28, found hanging in a Texas jail cell in 2015 after a minor traffic stop escalated into an arrest. Suicide or lynching? I am never offered a phone call, lawyer, a glass of water. I am never read my rights. Is this an admission that I have none? It is difficult to take deep breaths here.

After five and a half hours I am released at 6:37 with a desk appearance ticket and the threat, “If you don’t show up on that date we’ll come to your house and arrest you.” On the walk home I pass by the wall where I’d written TRUMP = PLAGUE. It’s been wiped away. Only a faint smudge of pink chalk remains.

That night I dream of 10-year-old Clifford Glover, shot in the back and killed by a member of the NYPD in Queens in 1973, and Randolph Evans, 15, shot in the head in point blank range in Brooklyn and killed by another NYPD officer in 1976. By the early 1980s, I write about the police executions of Ricky Lewis and Kenny Gamble, young men in a car with friends when police opened fire in Brooklyn. The years pass and the killings, the collective trauma, the unrequited demands for police accountability, the pandemic of racism and white supremacy that is a foundational part of the American experience, flourishes, unabated. Victims come to my dreams, girls who will never grow up, men, women, boys bubbling with bravado, now permanently consigned to the cusp of manhood. Clifford Glover and Randolph Evans are always there, two boys whose deaths first break a piece of my heart and then enrage, energize, and politicize me around the issue of police violence up until this day.

We say their names because they cannot

After five decades fighting for justice for those killed by the police, of dreams haunted by their silent faces, it is difficult to be hopeful that the systemic racism fundamental to the great American experiment will be interrogated and dismantled. The daily demonstrations in the month since George Floyd’s murder are the first time in my life I have seen so many faces that are not Black or brown challenging systemic racism. Maybe these young people understand not only how racism destroys us, but also how it simultaneously advantages and dehumanizes them and must be destroyed. But this will happen only if white people are able to grapple with the truth that whatever they have achieved — whatever — is built on the backs of disenfranchising and sometimes killing, Black bodies. (And no, just as neither you nor Grandpa need to have owned slaves to benefit from the enslavement of Black bodies and White Supremacy, literally killing Black people isn’t required, either.) I am not hopeless, but not ready to risk being hopeful. I have to protect myself, cannot lose yet another little piece of my heart. I am afraid to say it out loud.

Didn’t even give old Tag a chance

My father, born in 1916, grew up working poor, Black, and an ambitious dreamer in Washington, D.C. He went to college and dental school at Howard University, built a thriving practice, bought a big house on the Vineyard where his family spent summers. He was, by any measure, a success. Yet there was always about him a rumbling discontent, a nascent rage. In his eightieth year he tells me this story, told to him by his father, and his father before that.

“My father used to tell this story to me when I was growing up, and it established a way for me to view myself and the world. In the South, these mean, evil crackers got ahold of a Black man, and instead of lynching him they decided to dig a hole and put him in it, bury him up to his neck. Then they let Tag, a mean, hungry, drooling boxer, loose. So Tag ran back and forth and bit the Black man, tore his head all up, ripped off an ear, urinated in his face, all kinds of things. Finally, as Tag ran over him yet again, the man opened his mouth, grabbed Tag’s balls, and bit down. Tag yelped and screamed and strained so hard to get away he pulled the Black man clean out of the hole, and the man jumped up and escaped. And the white folks said, ‘That nigger. Didn’t even give old Tag a chance.’”

I am alive. I still can’t breathe.

Jill Nelson is a lifelong Vineyard summer resident. She is the author of six books, including the memoir, Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience; Finding Martha’s Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island; she edited Police Brutality: An Anthology

Leave a reply

Theme developed by TouchSize - Premium WordPress Themes and Websites