“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe…”
Last night, I watched a man murdered on video. His name was Eric Garner. I wept as I heard his muffled, scared pleading of, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” This one is too familiar. Familiar because I’ve seen it before as a scene in a fictional movie. Unfortunately, it is no longer fiction to me.
When I was 16 years old, the movie Do The Right Thing came out. It was one of the works of Spike Lee aimed at shaking up perspective, forcing us to think and consider how the world really works. As a white kid growing up in small-town Indiana, I’d had no exposure to racial inequality – at least none so overt that it registered with me. I had no fear of cops, assuming they were the good guys, there to serve and protect.
One day after school I ended up at a friends house and we were watching the movie, which had just come out on video (not DVD mind you, actual video tape that you had to rewind when you were done). There’s a scene in the movie where the character Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) is confronted by the police. One officer gets him in a “choke-hold” and eventually kills him. I had never seen anything like this. A white officer killing a man for his skin color. I held it together at my friend’s house. But when I got home, I rushed up the stairs into my bedroom and wept. How could this be? How could a man be choked to death while others stood by? How could the crowd beg the cop to stop, and – without remorse or pause – he continued until there was no life left in the man?
I didn’t know what to do, but had to do something. This image was eating me alive as a 16 year-old kid. So completely irrationally, I went to school the next day and joined the African American club. I knew I didn’t belong there, but I needed answers. I needed to know if this was how the world worked. I needed to know if my black classmates worried for their lives. I needed to learn about the black narrative in America. The country that had these words within its foundation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
I spent a year and a half in that club. Thank God for the gracious patience of people like Gloria Booker, Joey Elom, Angela Brannigan and Jantina Anderson. I had the privilege of reconnecting with Jantina this year over the miracle of Facebook. I got to tell her how deeply her kindness, grace and acceptance had influenced me. How my experience as a minority in that club greatly contributed to my current calling of leading a multicultural church trying to address the racial inequality that still exists in our country. That group of students taught me more than I learned in any class in school. And the faculty advisor to the group, Coach Sass, taught me how to lay down the unearned privilege of my skin color to empower the equal voice of others. That little high school club transformed me.
But here’s why I’m so angry right now: I’ve been out of high school for 21 years, and it’s still 21 times more likely that a black man will be killed by a police officer than I will. The exact narrative of that brilliant movie Mr. Lee made as a statement on our culture is coming true still today. That. Is. Wrong. It’s immoral. It must stop.
No person should die like that. I don’t care what he was doing. It’s wrong. And now he’s dead.
I’m sure I could write this better and more clearly if I weren’t so upset, but I am. I’m sad and tired of it. I’m tired of explaining to my little boys that another person of color was unlawfully killed and no one held accountable.
This isn’t an issue for the black community to walk alone. This is every person’s issue. Especially those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus.