In 2014, Eric Garner struggled to utter the words “I can’t breathe”, as a New York police officer held him in a chokehold. Accused of selling loose cigarettes, the NYPD officer wrestled Garner to the ground, with his arm firmly around his neck. At least 11 times, the phrase “I can’t breathe” was said by Mr. Garner before he died of compression of his neck and chest. In the days and months after his death, those three words became a rallying cry.
Protestors flooded the streets chanting and demanding change, under the mantra of “I can’t breathe.” Listening to activists and supporters, it was clear that the pain they felt ran deep. The call for change went beyond that moment. It extended to other facets of Black life. It encompassed policing, corrections, housing and education. Change was needed in food deserts, employment, city infrastructure, clean water and economic development. “I can’t breathe” metaphorically represented every inequity, in a variety of systems, that have unfairly impacted Black people.
In fact, it’s overwhelming when you think about all the ways in which inequities show up. A mass shooting in Buffalo revealed that the affected neighborhood had waited nearly 40 years to get a grocery store, after a freeway system was built through the heart of their community. A few months before Eric Garner was killed, Flint, Michigan city and state officials were Taylormaking a decision to upend the water supply for the primarily Black community. State-appointed emergency managers imposed a switch from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River as the city’s drinking water source. For 18 months, residents dealt with foul smelling and discolored water. Many lost their hair, developed skin rashes, and the city’s children experienced increased lead in their blood.
Deliberate decisions were made to put particular people in harm’s way. Much like Garner’s selling of those loose cigarettes, Black communities were targeted by tobacco companies. Federal regulators barred them from advertising to their key customers – youth, so the industry put the Black community in their crosshairs. Today, roughly 45,000 African Americans die from smoking-related disease each year. Additionally, African American children are more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke than any other racial or ethnic group. WE CAN’T BREATHE!
I want you to understand that I could do this all day. I could connect dot after dot, policy after policy, and system after system, which have built in racism, intentionally harmful actions or unintended consequences that are directed at Black people. Jackson, Mississippi and their water crisis is just the latest installment in willful neglect. The predominantly Black capital city, consisting of more than 150,000 people, has been without drinkable water for a month. Residents and public officials have known for decades that the main water plant needed upgrades. Like Flint, officials were slow to respond. Like the Garner case, the systems that should be in place to protect us, are killing us. Not one to cast the first stone, Wisconsin certainly comes with its share of problems, too. Bias and inequity in public services, the allocation of dollars and resources, and in the maintenance of infrastructure come at a cost. It’s unfortunate, that many decision makers don’t realize, we all end up paying the price.