Why I Can’t Breathe

Thursday, December 11th, 2014 @ 11:08AM

In this age of personal responsibility and expressive individualism we are witnessing a rare expression of solidarity from athletes who generally avoid weighing in on social issues.  The chilling last words of Eric Garner who died at the hands of New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo have become the rallying cry for protestors across the country and around the globe who believe it is time for a change in the way African American communities are policed. Columnist George Will writes in today’s Washington Post about “overcriminalization” in the American Society—that Eric Garner’s crime was not one that necessitated an armed response.  Crime is rampant in many inner-city neighborhoods where education is shameful and jobs are scarce.  Drugs have become the commodity of convenience for wealth creation and escape from the brutal circumstances of life.  Treating young black people as mostly criminals does nothing to change these realities.

LeBronLike many other men of color, I have had my encounters with the police.  But for the grace of God I could be dead or rotting away in a prison cell.  My first traumatic encounter with police occurred after my employer was killed in a robbery in the pharmacy he owned.  I was 18 years old and had worked in his store part-time for three years.  I had grown to be very close to that 35-year-old Jewish man.  He was my friend as well as employer.  The day my father died, it was he who consoled me.  The day he was killed in the robbery I was attending classes studying mechanical engineering at City College of New York.  The police were waiting for me when I got home.  They took me to the police station and grilled me for hours.  I was in shock from learning about the death of Gerald Ginnis yet I was being traumatized by the police who believed that I was somehow involved in the shooting.  I can’t breathe.

KobeMy next encounter occurred as I walked the streets of my Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn returning home from choir rehearsal.  I was about 20 years old.  I was the director of the choir and I was reviewing the music in my head when I turned the corner and looked directly into the barrel of a cop’s gun.  His hands were shaking and I started praying in my mind.  I dropped everything in my hands and put them behind my head as he instructed.  I was put into a patrol car and driven to a hardware store where the proprietor was asked if I was one of the men who robbed his store.  What if he had said yes!  I can’t breathe.

Another encountered occurred in Atlanta where I lived while completing my M.S.W. at Clark Atlanta University School of Social Work.  My wife and I had bought a house during our stay in Atlanta and after graduation I lived in Manhattan working on my Kyriedoctorate at Columbia University.  During one of my visits back home, two police officers knocked on my door as I was packing for my next morning’s flight to New York.  My wife had already left for her job in Chicago.  They said they had traced me to my address and that I had an outstanding warrant for writing a bad check to the Dekalb County Motor Vehicle Department.  It was written on a credit union account and I explained that I never had a checking account with a credit union.  They insisted that I had to appear before a judge and I could do that in night court and be back in time to catch my flight.  They held me over night.  I pleaded with them to run my social security number to no avail.  I was threatened with disappearing in the jail if I protested any more.  At the time I was working on my dissertation about incarceration and it was my first experience being locked up.  I can’t breathe.

Black athletes have decided this is an issue that is worth taking a stand for.  They realize that for the grace of God they could be in a very different place as black men in America.  And even as they achieve fame and notoriety, many in society still see them as less than human.  They have watched as a black man elected twice as President of the United States has been vilified, castigated, called a liar and damn near a thug.  RamsThey know that some of them are viewed as thugs.  They have brothers and friends who have been profiled and unjustly accosted by the police.  LeBron James said he is wearing the shirt in solidarity with the Garner family.  I am just glad that he and others are using their celebrity to bring attention to the injustice of the grand jury verdicts that exonerated Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo.  Cheers to the St. Louis Rams’ players, to Darren Williams and others on the Brooklyn Nets, to Derrick Rose, Reggie Bush, Kyrie Irving, the Georgetown men’s basketball team and everyone who protested.  When Kobe Bryant dons a protest shirt, you know that something major is happening.

Social workers know the importance of telling our stories, of processing our pain and humiliation and channeling those feelings into actions that are positive and meaningful.  The struggle against injustice, bigotry, and marginalization continues.  As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Most black men do not know what it feels to be normal in the American society.  I am not sure that day will come during my lifetime.  Until it does, I will be waiting to exhale.

Posted by
Categories: Beyond Advocacy
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments to "Why I Can’t Breathe" add comment
gary bailey
December 12, 2014 at 2:02 pm

Dear Charles-
Thank you for your honesty and most of all for your continued authenticity on this and so many issues of concern and relevance to us as social work practitioners .
Often- in times such as the one we are in now I return to the words of our ancestors both as a way to help me get more grounded and to help me put my lived reality into context, for like you I too …Cannot breathe .

On August 3, 1857, Frederick Douglass delivered a “West India Emancipation” speech at Canandaigua, New York, on the twenty-third anniversary of the event. Most of the address was a history of British efforts toward emancipation as well as a reminder of the crucial role of the West Indian slaves in that own freedom struggle…

“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it will be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”.

Chris St. Vil
December 16, 2014 at 12:04 am

With show much negative publicity plaguing sports in the past few months, these acts of support reflect the positive side of professional sports and athletes. Thanks for pointing that out and shedding light on it Dr. Lewis!!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: