I think about Eric Garner a lot. Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and others, too. But I think about Eric Garner a lot.
I can’t breathe.
I don’t relate to the discrimination. The abuse. The lived experiences of black people in America. I can’t. I am white. My privilege as a white person has created a cushion of safety around me. A generalized understanding of police as super heroes, as protectors, as the first people I should call when I am in trouble. The videos, the images, the stories that black individuals share about their experiences with the police… I believe them. Without conditions. Without the “yes, but..” I believe that Tamir Rice was playing with toy gun and was killed by police. I believe that had Tamir Rice been white, he never would have been shot. All the stories are awful, inhumane, worthy of human rights violations. And many of the responses from white people are awful and inhumane, too.
I can’t breathe.
If you have experienced loss of breath, a panic attack, an allergy that closes your throat, anything that leaves you gasping for air… Maybe you also think about Eric Garner a lot. Think about what he must have felt in those moments before his death. The fear and helplessness, the body’s automatic struggle to break free and find air.
I was 15 when I yelled “I can’t breathe!” While struggling in the arms of someone who held me down, my arms wrapped around myself, him behind me, my weight pressing on my diaphragm as I struggled to loosen myself from his hold.
He was supposed to be helping me. He had been taught to do this. He was not a police officer, but a mental health worker, supervising adolescents in an inpatient unit. And I was being restrained to prevent me from hurting myself. I was out of control. But when does control warrant restraint. When does preventing one harm allow for a different, and possibly greater, harm? It has been almost 19 years since then. I don’t remember everything that led up to that restraint (I do recall the catalyst was my refusal to leave the bathroom after a meal as I attempted to purge). But I still remember the feeling of not being able to breathe. The brief panic I felt when I could not take a full breath. When I could not escape the grip of a man who was supposed to be helping me.
To this man, I was just a crazy teenager who needed to be controlled. To be calmed down. He had been taught these restraints and ideologies. He was a good man, I know he was. I don’t blame him. I blame the system that dehumanizes people with mental illness. I blame the system that dismisses youth voices and creates such strong power differentials that when youth are hurt by an adult, they are taught to believe that their behavior or Self warranted it. My behavior, my refusal to comply.. this gave them permission to force me to comply. I could have easily been talked down. With compassion. With time and understanding. The 10 or 15 minutes it would have taken for someone to sit on the floor and just be with me. Instead, it led to hours of behavioral intervention.
I was lucky. Youth have died while being restrained in mental health treatment. I was lucky because he readjusted his grip.
He wasn’t the only mental health worker to restrain youth. It was a regular occurrence. Youth with trauma history being forced into compliance. Through further trauma. I was lucky not to have a sexual abuse history. If I had, I wonder if I would have had the presence of mind to yell “I can’t breathe.” Maybe I would have instead screamed for help, or just screamed, until I had no more breath. The struggling taken as defiance, the eventual stillness taken as compliance.
I believe that there are racist, hateful, violent police officers. I also believe that those police who are inherently racist, hateful, and violent are in the very small minority. I believe that the vast majority of mental health workers truly do want to help people with mental illness. I believe those in positions of power have sometimes been bred into a system that is rooted in the dehumanizing of people they are meant to serve. Meant to help. We take our most vulnerable citizens (and non-citizens) and created an oppression so heavy that people in power can, literally, get away with murder.
I don’t know how to change it. Mostly I listen. I think that is what most people want. To be heard. To be valued. I think the answers will come from the voices we have long silenced. Eric Garner was silenced forever. But I still think about him. I am still listening to his voice. I can’t breathe.