Last week a friend and I met for coffee. We haven’t seen each other for a couple of weeks and we talked about the recent killings of black men by police and brought up the 73 year old insurance executive who mistook his gun for a Taser and killed Eric Harris a 44 year old black man on April 2. I said to my friend that I wanted to understand the allure of guns for white men who at that age choose to join a police chase that unnecessarily ended with killing Eric Harris.
The coffee place where we sat was humming with patrons and a man who sat at the next table must have been paying close attention to our conversation since we talked quietly. The man, who was large and looked in his 60s got up came over to us, leaned into our table and said, “You should look at the NFL.” Given that both of us are rather small women this was clearly an intimidating invasion of our space. We were both stunned. We frequently meet at that establishment and it was the first time that anyone invaded our conversation.
At that moment the thought that this man might have a gun crossed our minds. His anger as he spat out NFL made it clear that we have become black by association, which meant suspending rules for social conduct, abandoning etiquette of boundaries between strangers, and feeling justified to intimidate. The man acted in a way that exposed intimidation rooted in a history of slavery, segregation and lynching. This history in its current version turns violently tragic for black citizens. “I am losing my breath” were the words that Eric Harris said after he cried, “Oh God, he shot me.” And the deputy in the video is heard responding “F—your breath.”
Ten days after the killing of Eric Harris we saw with our own eyes Baltimore police officers dragging a limp black man who clearly could not stand up, let alone walk and apparently at that point could no longer talk. Freddy Gray, a 25 year-old-man who when first tackled, and according to police report, did not resist arrest, was heard moaning on the ground, “I can’t breath.” According to Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez, “When he was placed inside that van, he was able to talk, he was upset. And when Mr. Gray was taken out of the van, he could not talk, he could not breathe.” Freddy Gray died on Sunday of a severe spinal cord injury he suffered when in custody. When we saw police dragging the limp Freddy Gray his spinal cord was damaged. This senseless death, and all other deaths that we see on our TV screens are the horrific images that bereaved parents and families now have to live with. It is beyond comprehension that these are the last images that parents have of their loved ones: frightened, crying and dying.
These tragic deaths take place in a cultural context that must change. The encounter my friend and I had in a coffee house in upstate New York highlights the civic source of power that the police draw on. It brought to the surface a sense of white entitlement to power that is broad and deep in many spheres of social life and in places around the country. It is an entitlement that people like our intruder take for granted and is so normalized that it draws little attention. It seems normal that black citizens young and adults are being followed around, are suspects in museums, in stores, on the street and that white women clutch their purses in elevators when they see a black person enter. This normative behavior is the very ground on which police exercise what is clearly persecution with impunity. They are doing it with our covert and overt cultural permission. That is the bad news.
The good news is that we can do something about it. The American concept of redemption begins with facing wrongdoing. We must stop proclaiming individually that we are not racists and recognize our long patrimony of cultural racism. We have to move away from a false rhetoric of a post-racial society; we need to stop indulging in self-praise of exceptionalism and take steps to make democracy a fact on the ground.
The good news is that social media has been making a huge contribution to increase public awareness. Social media, citizens with great courage and available technology record police brutality and make a serious intervention in a history of collective denial. Social media brings to light the assault on citizens of color and exposes the police cover-up that has been used to place the blame on dead victims.
Professional media may soon turn its attention to other news, yet it is our collective civic responsibility to act. We must stop the practice in which people in custody cry out “I am losing my breath” and lose their lives. In a democracy that is biblically inclined, Genesis (4:9-10) instructs that we hear their cries and that we are the keepers of the bereaved parents and bereft protesting communities.