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Justice

Why I Can’t Breathe

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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. I can’t breathe were the chilling last words of Eric Garner who died at the hands of New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo. These words 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.

Like 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.

My 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 doctorate 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. They 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.

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Dr. Charles E. Lewis, Jr. is President the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy. He has served as deputy chief of staff and communications director for former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns and was the staff coordinator for the Congressional Social Work Caucus.

          
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