“I can’t breathe”: from a cry for help to battle cry

Unsplash; photographer, Obi Onyeador

As police brutality and COVID-19 converge to choke the life out of African Americans, hearts fuse and tempers alight with uneven fervor

From Freshfruit by Wesley Wade

On May 25, 2020, many Americans and countless across the globe lost their collective breath at the brutal and cruel killing of 46-year old, unarmed, black man, George Floyd, at the knee of a white, Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin. Chauvin, along with three other officers (J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thoa) are captured on film near their patrol car, pinning down Floyd, who is handcuffed, faced down, and begs at least 16 times to be able to breathe. The following is an excerpt of the exchange between Floyd and officer Thoa, the only officer not involved in the physical restraint, obtained from the video recording by passerby Darnella Frazier:

Thoa: “What do you want?” 

Floyd: “I can’t breathe, man. Please, the knee in my neck. I can’t breathe.”

Thoa: “Well get up and get in the car, man.”

Floyd: “I will. I can’t move.”

Thoa: “Get up and get in the car.”

Floyd: “Mama!”

Thoa: “Get up and get in the car right.”

Floyd: “Mama…I can’t!”

Several onlookers who witness the events express their contempt at the officer’s aggressive detention tactic, all while Floyd is observed to be in compliance. Chauvin is seen bearing the full weight of his body on Floyd’s neck for a total of 8 minutes 46 seconds, nearly three minutes of which occur after Floyd’s body goes limp and EMT professionals can’t detect Floyd’s pulse. There’s both blood and what appears to be urine on the asphalt, escaping from Floyd’s lifeless body. Floyd’s alleged crime, for what some describe as a modern-day lynching, is being a possible suspect of using a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes — the merits of which are still unknown. 

This horror, shocking as it is, is one that is all too familiar to many vulnerable communities in the United States and reminiscent of a similar incident in 2014 of another unarmed black man, Eric Garner, in Staten Island, New York. In that killing, there were at least seven officers present, including the white officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who was responsible for the lethal takedown, while the others assisted in Garner’s arrest. Pantaleo’s use of restraint was an illegal chokehold. Garner’s alleged crime was selling loose cigarettes. Like Floyd, Garner shouted the words “I can’t breathe,” 11 times in the course of the less than two minutes it took in between when he was restrained until he became unconscious and subsequently died. 

The Pandemic of Police Violence

But there have been other recent deaths of African American men in police custody in different circumstances, including Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Delrawn Small, and many other gay and trans men whose names never make the headlines. The Washington Post tracked some 5,000 shootings of African American men and women since January 1, 2015 by police — over 1,000 of which occurred in the past year. (Breonna Taylor’s killing was one such recent and notable event.) These figures, of course, do not include incidents like Floyd’s and Garner’s that are similarly lethal, although, perhaps, not caused by firearms. But if the numbers are consistent with shooting incidents, they will outpace such deaths by whites and other races. Overall, African Americans, who are 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed than whites during encounters with police, are killed by police three times the rate of whites, although blacks only account for 13% of the U.S. population. This alarming fact was on display in the national news the same week that Floyd was killed, when police in Maryland apprehended Peter Manfredonia, a white, double-homicide and kidnapping suspect. Considered armed and dangerous, Manfredonia was on the run from Connecticut police for six days and was brought into custody without incident. When African Americans hear stories like this, it’s hard to grasp how unarmed black men are killed over minor infractions or for nothing at all. It’s no wonder why many consider the senseless deaths a culling and an assault against blackness, or why African Americans have such distrust in the police. These incidents of police violence against African Americans have been so fervent in their particularity that it birthed the moniker, Black Lives Matter in 2013, and the subsequent BLM movement made famous by a different kind of takedown of 49ers, Colin Kaepernick. In 2016 Kaepernick lost his NFL career after kneeling during the national anthem in protest of this same type of systemic racism and police brutality to great outcry from many, largely white Americans, who saw his action as an affront and unpatriotic. Officer Chauvin’s kneeling, by contrast, comes almost as an about face to prove Kaepernick’s point ironically and magnanimously, and has set off perhaps a more vociferous decry and protests with condemnation from a lot of Americans—black and white. 

“I can’t breathe,” has since gone from a cry for help to a battle cry, but largely only for a subset of the African American community. So, it’s both disheartening and not at all surprising that here we are again in 2020 with another unarmed, black man, being restrained by police, documented publicly by cell phone video, whose cry, even for his deceased mother, went unanswered until he himself was dead cold.

While the deaths have been tragic, the lack of accountability by police is what has been most inflammatory for the African American community. Between 2013 to 2019, only 1% of police killings of Americans have been charged with a crime, largely because of police unions that have strong armed local governments to implement statutes that prevent disclosure of police records or even their names, or because of the inherent bias in jury pools shown towards police as the “good guys.” Compare that to a 70% conviction rate when these types of events happen between civilians, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. When the U.S. Supreme Court litigated this in the 1980s on how police can conduct themselves where force is required, the jurors determined lethal use of force was acceptable only if the police officer had an immediate threat or was in danger. But with no federal requirement for officers to use deadly force as a last resort, there’s little incentive for bad cops to minimize unnecessary injury and death, especially if there’s virtually no repercussion. 

In the Floyd case, all four officers have now been charged: Chauvin with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter; the other three officers for aiding and abetting second-degree murder. Of the notable cases of African American deaths, only the 2018 killing of Botham Jean has had a conviction. In all the others, the charges were dropped, or the officers were acquitted or served probation. Often in these types of murders, not only is there an unnecessary use of force to cause death, but the police officers may not properly identify themselves, turn off their body cameras, falsify their reports or cover up each other’s actions, unless they’re caught on video tape. This was the case with Floyd who was reported to be resisting arrest and which has since been debunked by videos taken from various angles. So, each time that another unarmed, African American person dies at the hands of police, many African Americans feel retraumatized and wonder whether black lives really matter at all. 

Yet, there was another death of another black man the same week that Floyd died, whose cry for help also went unanswered and who received little, if any, coverage or outrage in the mainstream media, overshadowed by news of Floyd’s death. Just last week, Tallahassee, Florida police fatally shot Tony McDade, an African American trans man, who police allege was the suspect in a lethal stabbing and had pointed a firearm against them. Victimized a few days earlier, it’s believed that McDade went back to seek retribution against the five men that jumped him. This is seemingly corroborated by his own Facebook live post, which appears more like a cry for help from a pained person who the system had failed and who had suffered many unfortunate incidents the months prior, including getting robbed and being involved in a car accident. 

McDade said he would rather end up in a standoff with police and die rather than go back to prison from which he had been released only months earlier. He had originally served 4 years for gun possession and assault in 2005 but had violated probation in 2009 and spent 10 more years locked up, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. A week prior to his death, he was also jailed for brandishing a gun to a woman, which was later discovered to be a BB gun and had posted bail. One witness who saw the murder contend via a Facebook post that the police didn’t identify themselves when they arrived on the scene, saying of the police: “They got out of the car blasting. They didn’t even talk.” It’s unknown whether those law enforcement officers would have already been familiar with McDade and his history with the law or whether he did in fact brandish a gun, or whether he was responsible for the stabbing, but, as much as is known, the cops were responding to a stabbing incident and claim that McDade fit the description of the perpetrator. There are now three investigations underway: one examining the death of the stabbing victim, another, the shooting of McDade, and, the third, whether the officer who killed McDade did so criminally. No charges have yet been made. 

McDade’s killing occurred in a state that accounts for 1 of every 7 deaths of trans people in America the past two years. The increasing prevalence of trans killings, especially of black trans women, inspired the American Medical Association to declare these deaths at “pandemic” level. It’s unknown how many black and brown LGBTQ+ people have been shot and killed by police or who died in police custody since the spawn of the BLM movement, as this figure isn’t specifically and comprehensively tracked anywhere. But the most recent data available publicly and assembled by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program in 2017 documented 825 incidents of hate against the LGBTQ+ community. The report indicates police killed 6% of LGBTQ+ hate violence victims or around 50 LGBTQ+ people when responding to incidents, not unlike what may have happened in Tallahassee. Yet, it’s hard to get justice, according to Brandon Wolf, media relations manager at Equality Florida, the largest civil rights organization for the LGBTQ community in that state, “Florida regularly leads the country in the murders of black, trans women and upwards of 75% or 80% of those murders have gone unsolved. There’re a couple reasons why LGBTQ people are vulnerable in a situation with police violence. Obviously, we know that police officers have an incredible amount of immunity. That’s one of the things that has frustrated protesters right now. And then on the other end, you’ve got very weak or no protections at all for the LGBTQ community, and it’s difficult for LGBTQ people to seek a hate crime punishment for what happened.”

In McDade’s case, we may never know the identity of the cop who killed him, as Florida’s Marsy’s Law considers the cop the victim and protects his or her identity. We, at least, know witnesses described the cop in question as a white, male officer. It’s clear that if you’re black, LGBTQ+ and especially a trans woman who has died by others or even at the hands of the police, few will care and hardly anyone outside of the victim’s family, friends, and advocacy groups will be holding their breath for justice. So, in the theoretical hierarchy of whose lives matter, black and brown LGBTQ+ people and especially trans women fall even lower down than non-LGBTQ+ black people.

The Pandemic of COVID-19

Of course, all of this tragedy is unfolding as the U.S. is in the throes of the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. In Minnesota, where Floyd lost his life, there have been 25,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far with over 1,000 deaths. Autopsy reports show that Floyd himself was positive for the virus, likely asymptomatic, and had died from cardiopulmonary arrest because of chest and neck compression, based on how he was subdued. In the U.S., COVID-19 figures stand at 1.8 million confirmed and 106,000 dead nationally. Alone, these numbers are staggering but even more alarming when you consider that African Americans, who make up a large number of frontline workers, are the most impacted racial group of COVID-19, as a percentage of the overall population. New York’s Bureau of Communicable Disease Surveillance System, which tracks these figures by racial group, reports that African Americans are hospitalized for COVID-19 at nearly three-times the rate of whites and are twice as likely than whites to die from the largely pulmonary illness. 

Although the COVID-19 virus is indifferent to whom it afflicts, it’s especially lethal to the most vulnerable in the community, which includes the elderly, those with underlying conditions or compromised immune systems. Among its artillery, COVID-19 can be exacting in how it infects the lungs and causes the body’s natural immune defense to overwhelm lung tissue, making it hard to breath, lowering blood oxygen levels, causing organ failure and ultimate death— a type of asphyxiation, if you will, not unlike what happened to Floyd and Garner who suffered a significant drop in oxygen to the brain and ultimate cardiac arrest, as confirmed by the coroner in both cases. (Both were suspected to have had underlying heart disease.) This puts many in the African American community in COVID-19’s direct crosshairs with the exact same lethality of death from police violence when compared to whites.

Earl Fowlkes, the President and CEO of Center for Black Equity as well as Chair of the Democratic National Committee LGBT Caucus knows this threat all too well, “They say when America sneezes, African Americans get pneumonia, and this is the worst-case scenario for our community. In the District of Columbia, 70% of the cases of COVID-19 are within the black community and we make up only 42% of the population. It illustrates the fact that African Americans don’t have access to preventative information and medicine and of course that bears worse for queer, black folks because we still mostly live in black neighborhoods. So, if black people aren’t getting medicine, we’re not getting medicine. If black people aren’t getting information, we’re not getting information.” 

By CDC statistics, African Americans at younger and younger ages are suffering from chronic illnesses usually seen in older people, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke, multiple times the levels seen in whites, and are at particular risk of respiratory illnesses due to a prevalence for asthma and high levels of smoking. African Americans 18-49 are two times as likely to die from heart disease as whites, and those 35-64 are 50% more likely to have high blood pressure than whites. The data also shows that African Americans, more so than whites, have higher unemployment, more likely to be poor, obese and inactive, and unable to afford medical care. Of all races, African Americans have the highest death rate and lowest survival rate of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and most cancers. 

This observation is no different in the black and brown LGBTQ+ community. Although the data is not as widely studied nor as granular as what is available through the CDC for the general public, this insight can be seen from a patchwork of research. According to The Human Rights Campaign, members of the LGBTQ+ community are poorer, with less access to health care, and at greater risk for respiratory illness due to a greater propensity for asthma and smoking than non-LGBTQ+ people. Unlike their straight counterparts, the LGBTQ+ additionally suffer from policies that enforce discrimination, stigmatization and marginalization, even in the healthcare system, that cause greater prevalence for anxiety, substance abuse and suicide. When you intersect along racial lines, the picture is grimmer for black and brown LGBTQ+ people than cisgendered straight black men and women. 

With COVID-19 being such a novel disease, it may take a bit longer to see how this illness will wash over the LGBTQ+ community, as Pennsylvania is the only state that started tracking by sexual orientation less than a month ago. The Human Rights Campaign along with more than 100 LGBTQ+ organizations have already rung the alarm with healthcare providers and policymakers to the unique needs of the LGBTQ+ community, who are perhaps most vulnerable and who work in jobs on the frontline or affected by COVID-19 more so than other industries, such as education, food services, healthcare, hospitality, and retail. While getting the data is important Fowlkes from the Center for Black Equity says there are greater priorities, “Right now our community is in survival mode. I suspect, having been involved in HIV/AIDs for so long, this is hitting the community very badly. One of the biggest priorities more than the data is looking at mental health. Many queer people are already in places of isolation or in tenuous housing situations. So, for those people who are couch surfing, for those people who are in dangerous and volatile living situations, that’s a horrible sentence to give to someone. It’s almost like a prison sentence.” 

So, what is at the core and what can be done to create better outcomes for the African American community and by extension the black and brown LGBTQ+ community? Systemic racism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and their dissolution. Systemic racism is the amalgam of governmental, institutional, ideological and social forces and processes that compound to reinforce inequality and outcomes in access to such things as housing, healthcare, employment, education, and result in high incarceration. Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia together are irrational fears and distrust of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans people. While not having the same deep, concentrated and overt history of systematization as racism, they can infiltrate those very oppressive mechanisms at the detriment of queer people—worse if there is intersection. Decades-long struggles and fights to bring greater equality against these societal forces have only trickled in and brought incremental change, but not the types of reforms that could greatly improve the lives of the most disadvantaged and most vulnerable. 

Both the African American and the black and brown LGBTQ+ communities live in poorer neighborhoods that are over-policed, face a higher rate of arrest, conviction and incarceration, have less access to healthcare, with failing schools and not enough investment from the public and private sectors. Additionally, LGBTQ+ children and adults face even more unique challenges with discrimination and exclusion even in their own neighborhoods and racial communities, and often have to defend themselves from victimization. These forces altogether, as already mentioned, create the right conditions to burden both African Americans and black and brown LGBTQ+ people with a higher degree of morbidity and mortality than other groups, whether you look at it through a social or health-related lens. Both Floyd and McDade are among the best byproducts of their environments. 

Systemic Problems Require Systemic Solutions

There are various ideas being discussed at the state and federal levels on how to dismantle many of these very systems that have left African Americans and the LGBTQ at the periphery. In the criminal justice system, for example, we’ve already seen a shift in the adoption of body cameras worn by police in some cities. We’ve also seen changes in societal attitudes towards casual marijuana use, whose declassification as an illicit drug in only some states will impact millions in the prison system, including blacks who are nearly four times more likely than whites to get arrested. But while wearing body cameras is good policy, it is useless if it’s not widely enforced or if there’s no repercussion when officers disable them during an arrest where there is suspicion of foul play. So more comprehensive and meaningful reforms are necessary. Community and advocacy organizations like the New York City Anti-Violence Project demand an end to mass incarceration and the private prison complex system, repealing laws that protect bad cops, defunding the police, and reinvesting in community services. The argument is not that some kind of law enforcement apparatus isn’t needed, but that it has to be reimagined so that it’s serving the community. Ideas with which Wolf at Equality Florida also agrees, “The question at the end of the day is what is our criminal justice system designed to do? What do we want it to accomplish for us? Is it really about justice? Is it really about treating people with dignity and respect? Is it really about rehabilitation? Or is it simply about incarceration and punitive measures? We have to ask that fundamental question. And if we really don’t believe that our police force, our law enforcement agencies, our criminal justice system is designed to rehabilitate people to create a safer, more just society, then we’ve got to reallot resources to programs that actually do that.”

The same can be said about needed healthcare reforms that disadvantage the African American and LGBTQ+ communities. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) put into law by the Obama administration was a first step to protect the uninsured but has been under constant threat of repeal by Republicans and the President. The ACA provides healthcare for people at or above 100% to 400% of the federal poverty line through tax subsidies, which is a household income of roughly $25,000-$50,000. The ACA also includes Medicaid expansion coverage, currently offered by only 37 states. But without some kind of universal or single-payer health care system poor black, brown and LGBTQ+ people who don’t have jobs or work minimum wage simply can’t afford healthcare, including mental health care which is uniquely needed for the most vulnerable of these populations. It costs the U.S. government more to have an underclass of people with inadequate or no healthcare than it would cost to make it available to everyone. Critics argue that ACA increases premiums and incentivizes employers to ditch private insurance, forcing individuals and families, as well as those making above a certain threshold, to find their own plans in the marketplace, which can be costlier and not as robust. But defenders of ACA say rather than defund it, as Republicans want to do, it should be improved to create more competition and drive down cost and made available to more Americans. Like criminal justice reform, it seems the debate comes down to a political question of whether to invest in big institutions and business versus people. 

There cannot be true equity, unless there are broad-based ideas being considered and unless there is uniformity of laws across the land at a federal level for these and various other ways the system puts these communities at a disadvantage. If America wants to get beyond a state of two Americas (black and white) or three Americas (black, white, and LGBTQ+), then it truly has to be united in its approach. It requires congress to have the political will to enact the types of changes in criminal justice, education, employment, and housing that allow all people equal protections and access. Being poor, black, or LGBTQ+ should not exclude you from being able to live and thrive in America, where all men, women and gender non-conforming individuals are created equal. 

Where Do We Go from Here?

It’s, therefore, no wonder why the coronavirus disease pandemic has so spectacularly devastated the African American community, nor why Tony McDade is dead, nor why George Floyd was killed for the suspicion of knowingly or unknowingly using a fake $20 bill to buy a pack of cigarettes. It’s not even known whether Floyd, who is now affectionately being referred to in the media as the “Gentle Giant” in the wake of his passing, even smokes. In other words, he might have lost his life for no other reason than the presumption of guilt, given his race, by cops going about the normal course of business, as it relates to black people, or cops who simply could not see his humanity. 

What the officers who caused George Floyd’s death didn’t see, however, America and the world saw unfiltered. Those who disbelieved the decades of complaints of the African American community about police brutality could now see it in plain sight, delivered in their phones and on the television. It’s hard to defend officer Chauvin’s decision to put the full force of his body weight on George Floyd’s neck, while Floyd is handcuffed, subdued and gasping for air, even minutes after he has gone unconscious. Watching as Floyd’s life slips away in front of your very eyes is shocking, but not as shocking as the indifference and inaction of the police that brought about his death while they themselves had called the paramedics, realizing he was in some kind of medical distress. Nor is it as shocking as the demise of countless LGBTQ+ lives, like Tony McDade’s, that don’t even make the 11 o’clock news nor get the same kind of national attention even by fellow African Americans. Wolf from Equality Florida explains why this may be the case, “The dehumanization even further of transgendered bodies and people is part of the reason why we don’t have in-depth conversations about the murders of trans people. And that’s been our ask at Equality Florida. We have to be arm in arm in this movement. Black Lives Matter was inherently an inclusive space when it was founded, and we have to continue to leave it a space that can be inclusive and incorporate queer voices. At the same time, we have to incorporate racial justice as a focal point into the LGBTQ civil rights movement. These two things are linked together, and we have to be willing to support each other in that work.” 

A sentiment, with which, Fowlkes from Center for Black Equity agrees, “I’m hoping that by using this example of Mr. Floyd’s unfortunate, tragic murder, that it will bring light to other murders that are taking place within the black community and outside the black community by black people to black people and white people towards black people.”  

Since the horrific video went viral, African Americans’ demand for justice has sparked massive protests, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Rodney King in 1992 nor even with the type of allyship seen among the diverse marches across the country and the world. African Americans and by extension black and brown LGBTQ+ people feel like the US government institutions and structural inequality are kneeling on their necks. Coronavirus, much like police brutality, is literally and figuratively choking the lives out of them. While George Floyd is no longer living, his vicious killing has breathed new life in a culture war as old as time, and with the potential to bring about a wind of change. The question is: had it been Tony McDade who lay dead on the streets of Minnesota instead of George Floyd, would there be this type of outrage? Would similar fires of passion and even destruction burn in many of America’s great cities because of it? Or would Americans, regardless of race, consider it a waste of breath?

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