Issues  

Can you breathe?

Sinem Bilen Onabanjo


“I can’t breathe.” A chilling echo of Eric Garner’s 2014 plea rang out six years later from our TV screens and mobile phones on Monday, May 25.
“Please I can’t breathe,” George Floyd pleaded as he lay there while the beast in man’s disguise took a knee to his neck for eight long minutes (all the while being filmed on camera). “My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Everything hurts. They’re going to kill me.”

In a country where American footballer Colin Kaepernick faces abuse for taking a knee at the national anthem, police officers have no scruples taking a knee to an innocent man’s neck, even as he lies apparently unresponsive.

A statement released by the Minneapolis Police Department on Monday, said that the man was under the influence and resisted arrest. “Officers were advised that the suspect was sitting on top of a blue car and appeared to be under the influence,” the statement read. “Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step down from his car.”

“After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance,” the statement continued.

The department claimed that, “at no time were weapons of any type used by anyone involved in this incident,” and added that “body worn cameras were on and activated during this
incident.”

No weapons? That’s right, because in the treatment of black bodies in white spaces in the chequered racist history of the USA, anything can be used as a weapon against a black body: a tree, for instance, in the southern wilderness, or a car which drags a black man’s body for metres because of a fabricated rape accusation by a white woman, a fist sometimes, or in the case of George Floyd, a police officer’s knee. In racist America, a white supremacist doesn’t need a weapon, or even a taser; neither does a black suspect need to have committed a crime.

This comes as an even more horrific sequel to an already terrifying horror movie. On July 17, 2014, an unarmed black man named Eric Garner died on Staten Island, N.Y., after police officers threw him to the ground and put him in a choke-hold. Garner’s last words, as recorded on a cellphone video, were: “I can’t breathe.” He repeated the phrase 11 times.

Although the coroner’s report listed the cause of Garner’s death as “homicide,” no police officer has been charged in the case. But the video of Garner’s last moments helped bring national attention to the injustice black Americans face at the hands of police. “It’s opened the eyes-particularly of white Americans, who may not have believed that this kind of thing goes on,” journalist Matt Taibbi says.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t intend to downplay the precarious position held by the black male in the history of America; but much like the horror movie sequels on early noughties (think Saw or Final Destination) when you thought the deaths of the victims couldn’t be any more violent or preposterous, there is yet another sequel. Before the age of police bodycams and wide use of mobile phones with cameras, when black bodies could be beaten, lynched and disposed of untelevised, there was the long-standing joke that in horror movies it’s always the black man that dies first. Little did we know that all along it wasn’t just in movies. Or maybe in our hearts of heart we knew but there was no videographic evidence.

In early May, we watched horrified the footage of two men viciously hunting down Ahmaud Arbery. The scary part? Not only had this man not died three months previously, but the two white men who savagely hunted him down under the guise of a citizen’s arrest and the third one who filmed the savage killing were not charged.

Just the beginning of this week, another video, with all the tell-tale signs of shaky mobile phone filming and poor sound quality, showed a woman who called the police after Christian Copper, a bird watcher, asked her to put her dog on a leash in New York City’s Central Park. Fearing for wildlife, he tried to reason with Amy Cooper (no relation) to put her dog back on the leash. It was only when she refused and walked over to him threatening to phone the police, he began filming.

Shortly after, Ms Cooper told him she would phone police and tell them “there’s an African-American man threatening my life” and in an exchange that went from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds, which has since gone viral, the woman called 911, her pleas sounding increasingly more hysterical that there is and “African-American man threatening my life.”

Christian Cooper was one of the lucky few, as his sister, Melody Cooper, a writer for HBO who also shared the video to social media, acknowledged:

“I just imagined what happened to Mike Brown or George Floyd happening to him, and I wanted to make sure no other black person would have to go through that kind of weaponisation of racism from her.”

“If the cops showed up, they wouldn’t have seen his resume or known his job,” she said of her high-flying brother, who now works as a biomedical editor for Health Science Communications. “This kind of racism can kill people. It could’ve killed my brother.”

Christian Cooper may have gone unharmed without American racism being weaponised against him in a white woman’s unfounded hysterical accusations with chilling echoes of black man’s predicament in America.

But what about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Terrence Clutcher, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Samuel Dubose? What about all the countless others who have been killed by America’s savage racism? Forget Covid-19, in the face of such blatant, bloodthirsty, beastly hunting of black lives, can you breathe?

In this article:
Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
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