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  • Dr. Rogéair D. Purnell

I can't breathe!


George Floyd died laying in the street with a knee of a 200+ pound officer of the law pressed to his neck for nearly nine minutes as he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe as bystanders begged the officers watching to stop this murder. His spirit had already left his body for the last nearly three minutes, but I guess the officer wanted to make sure he was dead. My brothers tell me that the handcuffs are purposely tight to the point of being very uncomfortable. Why the need to sit on his neck, too? One of the other three officers who watched and did nothing, but had the gall to tell the pleading crowd, “This is why you don’t do drugs.” Mr. Floyd’s last word, “Momma,” a cry out to a woman who was already dead.

Nearly six years ago Eric Garner was allegedly selling single cigarettes (a misdemeanor?) in NYC was killed by a choke hold by another officer of the law. Again, bystanders watched and pleaded for the violence to end as Mr. Garner cried, “I can’t breathe” before he died on the sidewalk.

COVID-19, the virus that has led to the global pandemic, an illness marked by shortness of breath that has disproportionately impacted African-American/Blacks. Multigenerational poverty, limited access to preventative health care, healthy food options, and decent education, systemic and institutional racism and oppression and their impacts and the stress of dealing with these evil twins have left us vulnerable. The heart disease and hypertension that George Floyd suffered, both conditions that have plagued my family for generations, now blamed for our death. We are at war from all sides. Our sick hearts—the result of our poor choices they suggest—are the cause for our demise and not the physical harm caused by the police. Remember Malice Green?

Even in the mist of a nationwide shelter-in-case, we are not safe. The irony is not lost on us and our anti-racist allies. The insanity and murder has to stop. We’ve had enough.

We can be killed in our own homes—Breonna Taylor (and Botham Jean), while jogging to stay in shape—Ahmaud Arbery, running away—Gary King Jr. and Walter Scott, using a cell phone in our grandmother’s backyard—Stephon Clark, walking home from the store—Trayvon Martin, playing with a toy gun—Tamir Rice, sitting in our car—Philando Castile. Our blackness, our dark skin, incites fear and is seen as a threat. The mere

mention—African-American/Black— is perceived as cause for the police to come running when we are engaged in the most innocent of endeavors, bird watching—Christopher Cooper. To note our race and ethnicity when contacting the police is a real threat—to our lives. The Beckys, Chads, Karens, Sharons, and Susans know this. Our blood is on their hands, too.

What to do? What can I do? In California, eight of 10 of the first responders—including police officers—are educated at a community college. My commitment is to find a way to support efforts to prepare these essential workers. To encourage more funders to support Black leaders and their organizations. To use my skills as a researcher and evaluator to inform and monitor change to support equity and understanding. To seek out allies to address all forms of prejudice and oppression. To call out racism when I see it, hear it, and experience it. What can you do?

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