Over the last few days, beyond the anger and sadness I feel at the death of George Floyd and other injustices these past few years, I also feel something else – something I can’t quite narrow down to one emotion. Watching the video brings up a plethora of emotions and memories for me because the last words Mr. Floyd spoke, while a police officer’s weight was on his neck, were the same last words my husband uttered on the floor of our hallway in 2016 – “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe."
Though the circumstances were vastly different – the EMT’s were trying to save my husband’s life, however ineffectively - the intent of the four Minneapolis police officers is unclear and questionable. After I heard my husband’s last pleas, and when no means of giving him oxygen were produced, though one EMT asked where the oxygen was, I yelled for someone to give him mouth to mouth. I will never forget the words of a female EMT standing at the head of the gurney, doing nothing. She turned to me, and in a most indifferent tone said, “If he can talk, he can breathe,” as if I had offended her and should mind my own business. Within minutes, they wheeled out his silent body – no oxygen mask, no bag, no tube – nothing to help him breathe.
So, I know what it feels like to hear those last words, my husband's last utterances for help, in a life-threatening situation, and not be able to do a damn thing. I also know what it is to feel suspicious that the people in charge are not following professional protocol and perhaps putting your loved one in harms way. Yes, he could talk, until his air ran out!
charge – and rarely any justice when threatened or injured by the violence of authorities. I also don’t know what it would do to my heart and soul to grow up knowing there was a part of my county – my own town – who did not know me but hated me anyway. Indeed, whole organizations with chapters in nearly every state, filled with white men who formed these organizations to keep me down or do me harm. I would not know who they are. I would not know if or when they would harm me or for what? I would need to be on-guard and in defensive mode constantly in every socio-economic stratum.
And I don’t know what a black child feels when he or she learns that the short history of their race in America – the lives of their grandparents, great- and great-great grandparents- began with kidnapping from another country, and continued with brutality, being sold into slavery, beaten, lynched, drug behind trucks, raped, impregnated, and forced to do hard labor so white slave owners could live comfortably and rich. To know, that in a large sense, your ancestors built much of this country yet reaped little of its benefits.
Let’s imagine if just a few of these things were done to one individual – say a white child – we would consider their ordeal beyond traumatizing. Now, multiply that by millions down through just three or four generations – and here we are. It has to continue to have some traumatic generational effect on the entire culture.
I was born into a racist home and grew up during the riots, unrest, and upheavals of 1960’s and 70’s. Though I loved my father, and though he taught me many wonderful things, his bigotry was an ugly side of him. I know some of those ugly seeds took root in me, as I watched him spit and curse at the television whenever a black person was featured. He loved George Wallace and hated Martin Luther King Jr. So, I disliked MLK, also, believing the foul things my father said about him, until I read his writings. As an Air Force officer, my father despised policies like Affirmative Action and held a particular bitterness for any blacks in high positions anywhere. He told “nigger jokes” with his country club golfing buddies. He used to call black waiters, Reg, instead of their names, because nigger spelled backwards was reggin. It was his subtle, racist way of putting them in their place and showing off around his comrades.
So, I know racism. I know its ugliness and subtly. I know the superior attitude that white men can carry around, thinking African Americans are stupid and inferior in every way, except as players to be bet on in sports. Over the years, I have had to search my own heart and deal with my shame in participating in some of that bigotry. And I have SO much further to grow. This country has so much further to grow, as well. I don’t know exactly what the answer is. Then again, maybe the answer is simply: when someone is pleading that they can’t breathe, we need to listen, and do something to ease their suffering.
What sometimes helps me understand the essence of a cultural problem is to again bring it down to an individual or two. My husband and I used to facilitate a Marriage Maintenance group for young couples at a church. The first thing we talked about, born out of our own struggles, was building a foundation of respect. And part of respecting means listening, instead of reacting. Nothing can be as infuriating or make you feel so alone than to remain unheard or misunderstood when you share a hurt or complaint. So, we encouraged them to watch for their own defense mechanisms…the “Yeah, but… or the “Yeah, well you…” or the point/counter-point and unwillingness to be empathetic to their partner’s pain. It can make you feel either defeated, angry, or ready to call a lawyer.
During these last three and a half years, as brutality and bigotry seems to have reared its ugly head more boldly, it appears that African Americans are damned if they do (peacefully protest) and damned if they don’t (although most violence has not been instigated by protestors). The vitriol that came out after Colin Kaepernick took a knee in prayerful protest of this very type of violence was unsettling to watch. Instead of listening, the narrative was immediately changed. It went from his self-proclaimed protest of police violence against blacks, to others proclaiming that he was spitting on the flag (America) and into the faces of our active military and veterans. The two had NOTHING to do with one another, but that new, changed narrative was something white folks could get justifiably indignant about. I wonder how these same people would have responded had it been a Native American football player taking a knee in protest of how our country has and does treat them. Would they have been so harsh? Could they have, in good conscience, changed the narrative? Or what if a conservative, pro-life player took a knee to protest that a pro-choice policy goes against the kind of America they want. Would taking a knee during the National Anthem still have been wrong? And would progressives have changed the narrative? If so, that, too, is a problem.
At the beginning of the year, a slogan, passed around and embraced by some, was “2020 Equals Perfect Vision.” Maybe that was our first Divine Clue…to watch and pay attention. Maybe the second Clue, as we DID watch loved ones and strangers on ventilators struggle to breathe and George Floyd pleading to be let go so he could take another breath…is to Listen. If we don’t, we will continue to be a nation divided, divorced from one another and always harboring hate, suspicion, and anger. This time it needs to be our humble choice, white brothers and sisters. Our choice.