Please. I can't breathe. Mama.
Dear Friends and Family,
On May 25, 2020 I started this letter to you. I wanted to explain some of my un-normal choices and some of my family’s calculated risks, like why I spray painted pink boxes on the street in front of our house (I’ve never tagged anything in my life). Or why I organized Hula Hoop Happy Hour three times a week outside our house (I never learned to Hula Hoop as a child). Why we invited six-year-old children, who are not related to us, into our home. Or why we allowed contractors to work outside, under, and sometimes inside our house during the shutdown. Why we visited friends at their house sitting six feet apart in their backyard. Or why we continue to work at Homies Empowerment even though we can’t be six feet apart.
I wanted to talk about how these un-normal times are our new normal. How we can’t carry on with business as usual because the old rules, norms, and expectations don’t (always) apply. How we have to weigh the potential physical harm of COVID-19 against the long-term social, emotional and mental health trauma that results from social isolation. How we have to come together as a village, a barrio, a (Rampart) street to take care of each other.
But, then, a man I didn’t know, a man the same age as my brother, a man engaged to be married, a man with a daughter the same age as mine and another only six years old, a man lying face down on the black asphalt with his hands cuffed behind him, a man with two men holding down his legs and torso and a third kneeling on his neck, begged, “Please. I can’t breathe. Mama.”
A man named George Floyd.
A black man named George Floyd murdered by three white men while a fourth man watched. A black man named George Floyd murdered by the police, who are sworn to protect and serve.
Friday night, my husband, daughter and I joined three of our friends in a solidarity and justice for George Floyd march. We, and most everyone I saw, wore masks.
We weren’t six feet apart, but we were peaceful—until the police launched tear gas and we had to run. The crowd scattered, no longer cohesive or controlled. Some of us made our way to a safe place and kept walking. Others of us raged against the injustice by breaking windows. The police stayed inside and launched tear gas. They did not come out to protect, direct, assist or serve, which left everyone on their own.
Our group walked to an area uninvolved with the march and called a friend to pick us up. We—three white teenagers and three white, middle-aged adults—sat on the wide steps of a modern Catholic Cathedral and looked at our iPhones. A few minutes later, a small SUV-type car pulled up and three boys in their late teens, early twenties, got out and sat on a set of steps behind us, talking in quiet voices, just hanging out.
Then, the sirens came. A firetruck, an ambulance, and a couple of police cars raced past us. A white man in a police SUV pulled up in front of the church steps, stopped and stared in our direction. But he wasn’t staring at us. He was staring at the boys behind us, the boys who had brown skin. We, three white middle-aged adults, stared back at the white policeman until he drove off. Two minutes later the boys got back in their car and left.
Later we learned the police and ambulance were responding to the shooting of two security guards, one of whom, a black man named David Patrick Underwood, died from the shooting. A drive-by shooting from the open side door of a large white van. Not a shooting from participants in the solidarity march or anywhere close to the three boys sitting on the steps of a church.
Today, my family and I joined another solidarity march from Oakland Tech, a local high school, to Oscar Grant Plaza. This march had speakers from the school and the community. It had a car with first aid supplies. Organizers, who looked like moms and dads and teachers, stood along the route handing out free water, string cheese, and granola bars to teenagers. It might have been a giant soccer tournament, if not for all the signs honoring George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Mike Brown, Amaud Arbery, and so many others. When we left the march at 6:40, it was still peaceful, but an hour later, 20 minutes before the 8pm curfew was to go into effect, Oakland PD launched tear gas at the marchers and later arrested at least 40 people.
There is so much more I want to say, but I am not the one to say it. Instead, I leave you with the eloquent words from an author of 16 books (below) and I offer up a prayer for the people pushed to the edge that we may, one day, all be healthy, safe and loved, most important, loved.
What was your first reaction when you saw the video of the white cop kneeling on George Floyd’s neck while Floyd croaked, “I can’t breathe”?
If you’re white, you probably muttered a horrified, “Oh, my God” while shaking your head at the cruel injustice.
If you’re black, you probably leapt to your feet, cursed, maybe threw something (certainly wanted to throw something), while shouting, “Not @#$%! again!”
Then you remember the two white vigilantes accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged through their neighborhood in February, and how if it wasn’t for that video emerging a few weeks ago, they would have gotten away with it. And how those Minneapolis cops claimed Floyd was resisting arrest but a store’s video showed he wasn’t. And how the cop on Floyd’s neck wasn’t an enraged redneck stereotype, but a sworn officer who looked calm and entitled and devoid of pity: the banality of evil incarnate.
Maybe you also are thinking about the Karen in Central Park who called 911 claiming the black man who asked her to put a leash on her dog was threatening her. Or the black Yale University grad student napping in the common room of her dorm who was reported by a white student. Because you realize it’s not just a supposed “black criminal” who is targeted, it’s the whole spectrum of black faces from Yonkers to Yale.
You start to wonder if it should be all black people who wear body cams, not the cops.
What do you see when you see angry black protesters massing outside police stations with raised fists? If you’re white, you may be thinking, “They certainly aren’t social distancing.” Then you notice the black faces looting Target and you think, “Well, that just hurts their cause.” Then you see the police station on fire and you wag a finger saying, “That’s putting the cause backward.”
You’re not wrong — but you’re not right, either. The black community is used to the institutional racism inherent in education, the justice system and jobs. And even though we do all the conventional things to raise public and political awareness — write articulate and insightful pieces in the Atlantic, explain the continued devastation on CNN, support candidates who promise change — the needle hardly budges.
But COVID-19 has been slamming the consequences of all that home as we die at a significantly higher rate than whites, are the first to lose our jobs, and watch helplessly as Republicans try to keep us from voting. Just as the slimy underbelly of institutional racism is being exposed, it feels like hunting season is open on blacks. If there was any doubt, President Trump’s recent tweets confirm the national zeitgeist as he calls protesters “thugs” and looters fair game to be shot.
Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer.
Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.
So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be killed by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.
What you should see when you see black protesters in the age of Trump and coronavirus is people pushed to the edge, not because they want bars and nail salons open, but because they want to live. To breathe.
Worst of all is that we are expected to justify our outraged behavior every time the cauldron bubbles over. Almost 70 years ago, Langston Hughes asked in his poem “Harlem”: What happens to a dream deferred? /... Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?
Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye sang in “Inner City Blues”: Make me wanna holler / The way they do my life.
And today, despite the impassioned speeches of well-meaning leaders, white and black, they want to silence our voice, steal our breath.
So what you see when you see black protesters depends on whether you’re living in that burning building or watching it on TV with a bowl of corn chips in your lap waiting for “NCIS” to start.
What I want to see is not a rush to judgment, but a rush to justice.
People pushed to the edge by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the author of 16 books, including, most recently, “Mycroft and Sherlock —The Empty Birdcage.”