I Can’t Breathe!

Nothing will bring Eric Garner back. Nothing will bring Michael Brown back. Nothing will bring Tamir Rice back. Nothing will bring Amadou Diallo back.

These people died tragic deaths. These people were victims, not only of the actions of the law enforcement officers who confronted them, but they were the victims of what I perceive to be a lingering malaise (“a  problem or condition that harms or weakens a group, society, etc.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary) in the US.

Our society is weakened whenever we perceive someone who is different as a threat. That difference may be something as simple as  different skin pigmentation.  It’s one thing to recognize that another human being has a different color skin, yet quite another to base one’s actions towards that human being upon that difference.

Our society is experiencing an ever-expanding division between those who have, and those who don’t have.  Poverty, a major concern for everyone, affects different people differently, but poverty in and of itself is no crime.  I have lived in some very poor neighborhoods in my life, and there were some who rose from them to live more comfortable lives and others who succumbed to the instant and imaginary solace provided by alcohol and drugs.

Further, knowing what I know, (which according to Socrates is:  Nothing) crimes are committed by the poor and by the rich.

For the sake of furthering the conversation, I would like to look at Mr. Madoff, who swindled so many out of their life savings.  Mr. Madoff, convicted of fraud for running a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme is currently serving 150 year prison sentence.  He was not, however, shot, tackled or otherwise harmed by law enforcement officers who arrested him in order to serve and protect us.

Eric Garner may well have been a hustler.  He may well have had a criminal record.  Eric Garner was, however, unarmed and not a clear and present danger to those near him.

Tamir Jackson Rice was a foolish twelve year old child who played with a pellet gun. If you ask me, water pistols that are brightly colored and clearly toys, are the only guns I would allow children to play with.  I’ve seen more than enough of what people can do with real guns during my twenty years of military duty, as a regular and as a reservist soldier in Israel’s IDF.

Amadou Diallo was hit by 19 of the 41 shots fired at him by four plainclothes police officers.  He was reaching for his wallet to identify himself to those officers and they perceived his actions as reaching for a weapon.

Is there a difference in how law enforcement officers treat people in poverty-stricken neighborhoods as opposed to upscale and wealthy neighborhoods?  Is there a difference in the way law enforcement officers treat people whose skin pigment is brown as opposed to some other lighter color?

In 1999 New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman admitted (after three years of denial) that the state police had engaged in “racial profiling” as a tactic for stopping drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike.  More than five times as many black drivers were stopped as opposed to other drivers.

The American Civil Liberties Union had issued a report titled “Driving While Black – Racial Profiling on Our Nation’s Highways” which had brought that issue to the public awareness.

So what is it that needs to be done?  Do parents have to have “The Talk” with their children, as did New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio with his son Dante?  How do we protect our rights and our freedoms, when they involve, among many other things, creating a certain image of ourselves?  How do we perceive young people who appear in public with construction boots unlaced, pants well below their waistline, hats askew on their heads?  How do we create a feeling of trust in our communities that those law officers will indeed serve and protect us?  Many of them do, yet how do we prevent those who do not from being employed as servants and protectors of the public good?

I would like to end with two quotes from one of the greatest men ever, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He said:  “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  Dr. King also said:  “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It is time that we voice our concerns.  It is time that we carry this burden, this weight of the unjust and unfair treatment of our fellow citizens, be they workers or academics, be they wealthy or poor.  It is time that we afford opportunities to all and any who qualify, regardless of their social standing, regardless of their ethnicity, certainly regardless of the pigment of their skin.

Let us not ever forget the words of Martin Niemöller.  They will help us all and allow us all to breathe!

About the Author
Born in Israel, Yuval emigrated as a baby to Austria and then Canada. He returned to live in Israel in '71 until '91. His military service was in Golani Brigade's 13th Battalion (including Yom Kippur War) with reserve duty as a tank commander and later a liaison officer in the IDF Liaison Unit. He now resides in Pennsylvania, USA.