I wrote this piece after the non-indictment of Eric Garner’s killer, back in December of 2014. It was published on another site that has since ceased publications. But, as I head back out to protest yet more police killings of yet more black and brown people, I ask myself again why I am compelled to do this. Which reminded me that I wrote a whole thing about it.
The point is not only to stand up, to fight back, to be counted. It is to engage in an act of collective mourning. Crying alone with my office door closed in the minutes between meetings is not healing, or helpful or, really much of anything. At least for me, it’s only by being surrounded by fellow mourners, by collectively feeling the full depth of our fear and sorrow, only in that mass scream of resistance, that I know how to find my hope again, so I can wake up tomorrow, get out of bed, and keep fighting.
Of course, everyone I know is horrified by the video footage of Eric Garner being choked to death. Most people I know are also horrified by the killing of Mike Brown, though some of my friends are willing to play devil’s advocate (well, but is it possible that maybe there was something that…), though even they agree that the grand jury proceedings were highly suspect.
But when the protests started in New York City, first with the non-indictment of Mike Brown’s killer, and then with the non-indictment of Eric Garner’s, many people I know stayed at home. Some people don’t get the point of protesting. Some people don’t believe in civil disobedience. Some people believe in civil disobedience, but only when it doesn’t inconvenience anyone — like all the people on bridges and highways, trapped in their cars as dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people stream past them with their arms raised, signs and banners held high, chanting in unison.
Black lives matter.
People ask: What do you guys want, out there shutting down the West Side Highway? What’s the point? Is it just to get attention from the press to help pressure someone with some power to do something that will have some effect on someone somewhere? Sure, I say. That’s something I want.
Hands up, don’t shoot.
Well, what policies are you asking for, as you work your way down Houston? Is it independent prosecutors for all police brutality cases? Is it federal intervention? Is it a change in the standard required for police officers to be charged with manslaughter, murder, or reckless endangerment? Sure, I say. Those are all things I want.
But as I walk with my hands up, fingers freezing down to the bone, I’m not thinking about special prosecutors. I’m not thinking about mens rea. I’m walking with men and women, mothers and fathers and children and grandchildren, chanting with audible anguish, in an act of collective mourning.
I can’t breathe.
Every time we say it, we imagine ourselves in that moment, face down on that sidewalk. Every time we say it, we declare that we are suffocating under the weight of all the lifeless bodies of black and brown men and women who have died, innocent and helpless, at the hands of the state.
I’m here because I don’t know how not to be here. Because I don’t want to cry alone in my apartment anymore. And I don’t want anyone else to cry alone in their apartments. I want a reaffirmation that we — this collective beating heart of New York, this mass of thousands upon thousands of feet and mouths and ears and arms — we think this is wrong. Whatever the law is, whatever the police procedural manual says, whatever attempt the universe makes to rationalize or explain or intellectualize, we living breathing human beings walking together on this night believe that this is wrong.
I can’t breathe.
Otherwise it all starts to become normal. Of course, parents of black and brown children need to have “the talk” to explain how not to get killed by police officers (keep your hands in sight, never pull your hood up, say “ma’am” and “sir”). Of course, we should all be prepared, at any minute, to be confronted by a police officer and immediately obey, without hesitating, reacting, wondering, questioning, raising an eyebrow or scratching our ass, or risk immediate death. Of course, black and brown people should expect to be shot if they pick up merchandise in a store or knock on a stranger’s door after a car accident.
Of course, we say. We’re so hip to injustice we’re immune to its reality. Come on, are you really all that surprised that black people still get murdered by cops? Have you been living under a rock for the past 10, 50, 200 years? The cynicism masks resignation: Nothing new here, folks, move along.
Only by trudging through the cold city streets with these countless, distraught strangers can I reassure myself that these killings are not normal, but that being sad and angry and afraid is. Gathering together, we give ourselves permission to feel the depth of our pain, to shrug off our cynicism and face the reality of human children lying dead in public playgrounds.
I can’t breathe.
For ten minutes, twenty minutes, or an hour, the protesters demand that people stop — stop driving, stop debating, stop shrugging, stop everything, and just listen to Eric Garner’s last words ring out over the Hudson river. Sit there and imagine what it is to be slowly strangled to death on a crowded public sidewalk in the middle of the day, with the full winking approval of the state.
Then look at me through your car window and tell me that this makes you sad. That you are angry and afraid. Reaffirm for me that, whatever details and minutiae we’ve chosen to debate on TV or over dinner, at our most basic, we all believe it is wrong to kill innocent people. That this universal, fundamental human value still lies beneath our layers of rules and laws and procedures and politics. That we are not so far gone as a species that we no longer cry when we watch people die.
That is what I want.