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December 5, 2014

We Can’t Breathe.

eric garner last words

I can’t breathe.

That is how I feel after hearing the verdict in the Eric Garner case: the officer faces no charges for the chokehold that ended Mr. Garner’s life. The only person to face charges is the one filming this atrocity. The evidence. For all intents and purposes, this film is Eric Garner’s voice. His only voice. Smothered twice. Once by an officer abusing his power. Then, again, by our country, our system, our jury that indicted the person resurrecting Eric Garner’s voice by film.

Eric Garner’s voice: smothered twice.

This is far from an isolated case—in fact it is a pattern that affects the African American community disproportionately. This is tantamount to this country, our country silencing and smothering an entire community.

Where is the recourse? Where is the justice?

I am not a person of color so I can not speak personally about the disproportionate violence and injustice that this country has historically, overtly, covertly, systematically and perpetually inflicted upon this community. I speak as a citizen of a country that I want to be proud of. A country where we are honest enough to admit that:

1. There is a profound racism embedded in our roots, our culture. It is flooding through our white American veins, and reinforced on our American streets on a daily basis.

2. We have a system where certain people are hired to act as guardians of our community, our streets. They have a profoundly challenging job. They put their lives on the line every day. They are not the problem.

Police are not the problem.

Our system is.

These officers are human beings and as such they are inherently vulnerable, fragile, flawed. It is an absolute that some of these people—with power, authority and weapons are going to abuse their power. They will also, very likely, abuse their power disproportionately toward the most disenfranchised groups.

When this happens, there must be recourse, there must be justice. When there isn’t, when we do not indict an abuser of power and do indict a person who exposes injustice, we are stating as a collective community that a certain group of people (who have the title of “officer”) have absolute authority. And that we, the citizens, have none. We are relinquishing our power. We, as a community, as a country, are silencing our own voices.

vigil for slain

So what can we do as a unified community? There are no easy answers. There isn’t one cut and dried solution to complex multifaceted issues. But here is where I think we can start moving in the right direction.

1. Act as if this is your community under attack. Because it is. Act as if this was your son, your father or your brother. Because it is. Injustice for one citizen is injustice for all citizens. If one of us can’t breathe, none of us can. I’ll be headed to a local protest this weekend. I hope to see you there. And I really hope to see my local police officers standing next to me. Equally outraged.

2. See the issue for what it is: multifaceted. It does not begin nor end with police officers. The issue is not them. It is a system wide issue. It is a legal issue. It is an American issue—affecting all Americans, including police officers. Citizen vs Officer is what this issue has been reduced to and it is a brilliant distraction from the real issue: America (via our legal system) vs. citizen.

A system that signs off on injustice and indicts the one exposing that injustice is profoundly flawed and it adversely affects all of us, including police officers. Especially the ones who are trying to help. Focus on the problem.

3. Begin and sustain an honest dialogue about racism and white privilege. We need to acknowledge institutionalized racism before we can begin to dismantle it and even hope to begin to form a unified community. Do some research. Be aware of the power structure, bias, privilege. Talk about it honestly.

Let this be a catalyst for change.

Let us speak up for those who can’t. And for those who tried and were silenced.

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Author: Jenny Spitzer

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Britt Reints/Flickr, Neon Tommy/Flickr

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