By Maya Clever
The Baldwin School
“I can’t breathe.”
Those were the unforgettable words uttered by Eric Garner as he took his last breath during a deadly chokehold by a New York officer in 2014.
We heard them once again last summer when George Floyd fought for his life while being pinned to the ground under the knee of a Minnesota police officer.
Since those tragic deaths, “I can’t breathe” has become a battle cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been pushing for criminal justice reform, the end to police brutality, and the right of black people to simply exist while being black.
However, BLM protesters are not the only ones hoisting this slogan.
During the global pandemic, many white people ignored health guidelines by refusing to wear a mask. Their reason: “They couldn’t breathe.” In so doing, many of these people, staunch supporters of President Donald Trump, have politicized and demeaned the BLM mantra.
Masks not withstanding, the waves of mass protests and how local law enforcements have dealt with them shown what it means to be black in America.
New hashtags continually pop up daily, protests continue anew in the wake of unjustifiable shooting deaths of black men, and headlines repeatedly cast protests as riots and protestors as thugs. It’s almost like living in two different Americas.
In a digital map created by Samuel Sinyangwe, an American policy analyst and racial justice activist, Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police officers in comparison to white people and have made up for 28 percent of deaths at the hands of the police while only making up 13 percent of the population.
From an early age, black children are taught proper ways to interact with police officers: You look straight at the officer, refrain from sudden movements, and whatever you do, do not reach in your pockets or glove compartment. What follows, they are told, could end up being a deadly encounter.
A research article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2019 stated that “about one in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police.”
A follow-up study by the same group in September noted that “mask-wearing correlated positively with other protective behaviors” and was “an effective, fair, and socially responsible solution to curb transmissions of airborne viruses.”
So, the irony here is that “I can’t breathe,” used as a slogan to stamp out oppression by BLM protesters stands in sharp contrast to Trump supporters, who use it as a poke in the eye of the establishment.