William Rivers Pitt | Trying to Breathe in These “Post-Racial” United States

(Photo: Ryan Sorensen)(Photo: Ryan Sorensen)

It was 1984, and I was in love for the first time in my little life. We had met at a dance, and for a few magnificent weeks we drowned in each other’s waters in the way you can only do at that sapling age. She was incandescent, hilarious, beautiful, funny and whip-smart, and I plumbed the depths of my barely-there personality just to keep up. She was wonderful.

And she was Black, and on the day of the Boston Marathon that year, I was walking down Commonwealth Avenue with my arm around her, and a car cruised by filled with a pile of upperclassmen from the school I attended, and the car slowed, and the faces in the windows were all turned my way, and they were a thunderstorm, a caricature of disgust and revulsion and rage and hate. She didn’t see it. I did, but I didn’t fully realize what was coming.

The day after, back at school, those upperclassmen formed a pack and swarmed me. There was a dress code, so I enjoyed the experience of being pummeled by large people in Navy blue sportcoats, felt their blows raining down while their terrible 1980s ties dangled in my face, and all the while they screamed, “Did you f—k that ni—-r? Did you f—k that ni—-r? Did you dip your wick? Did you?” as the fists flew.

The experience was profoundly formative. I was a boy when that happened, when merely being in the presence of a Black person was cause for violence, and this was in the “enlightened” Northeast. I understood much more about my country the day after than I’d ever known the day before.

It happened thirty years ago, and we all like to believe in the concept of progress, but Michael Brown is dead today with no consequences, and Eric Garner is dead today with no consequences, and cops send wildly racists texts back and forth to each other stoking their hatred for the Black men who get shot down.

Which leads to this:

In July, New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo choked unarmed black man Eric Garner to death, in broad daylight, while a bystander caught it on video. That is what American police do. Yesterday, despite the video, despite an NYPD prohibition of exactly the sort of chokehold Pantaleo used, and despite the New York City medical examiner ruling the death a homicide, a Staten Island grand jury declined even to indict Pantaleo. That is what American grand juries do.

In August, Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown to death in broad daylight. That is what American police do. Ten days ago, despite multiple eyewitness accounts and his own face contradicting Wilson’s narrative of events, a grand jury declined to indict Wilson. That is what American grand juries do.

In November 2006, a group of five New York police officers shot unarmed black man Sean Bell to death in the early morning hours of his wedding day. That is what American police do. In April 2008, despite multiple eyewitness accounts contradicting the officers’ accounts of the incident, Justice Arthur J. Cooperman acquitted the officers of all charges, including reckless endangerment. That is what American judges do.

In February of 1999, four plainclothes New York police officers shot unarmed black man Amadou Diallo to death outside of his home. That is what American police do. A year later, an Albany jury acquitted the officers of all charges, including reckless endangerment. That is what American juries do.

I don’t have the answers. When I was a boy, I dared to date a Black girl who was a joy, and was thrashed for it. I had the sad, silly thought that things might have changed in the intervening decades. Thirty years later, however, hyper-weaponized police forces are laying unarmed Black men low left and right, and because prosecutors have to work with cops every day, they are loath to spend the requisite energy required to gain a grand jury conviction for a cop who cuts a man down in the street for no reason anyone can adequately explain.

Eric Garner was murdered by a clot of police officers on a public street in broad daylight for the crime of selling individual cigarettes. Michael Brown was cut down by a police officer who, based on the preponderance of evidence collected by that particularly ludicrous grand jury, panicked and shot an unarmed teenager to death, and that teenager’s body was left to lie in the street for hours, and hours. The Medical Examiner, by his own testimony, did not photograph the body because he claimed the batteries in his camera died.

Res ipsa loquitor. The thing speaks for itself.

Hank Johnson, the Democratic Representative from Georgia’s 4th district, took to the floor of the House to deliver a cry for simple justice that must resound in the halls of history for as long as memory exists:

Men and boys killed by police.

I can’t breathe.

Impunity for the killers-no justice, no peace.

I can’t breathe.

Militarized police met peaceful protesters on their knees.

I can’t breathe.

Weapons of war-a show of force on our streets.

I can’t breathe.

Disenfranchised youth driven to violence as speech.

I can’t breathe.

Cynical media think this makes great TV.

I can’t breathe.

This cowardly Congress afraid of losing our seats.

I can’t breathe.

Half-hearted reform when there’s more that we need.

I can’t breathe.

Just thinking about the despair that this breeds.

I can’t breathe.

Black lives matter. Hear my pleas.

I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.