Much has been said of Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe”. He uttered this phrase 11 times as he lay dying on the sidewalk. Much fuss has been made over this statement. It has been a bit polarizing at times. With one side it galvanizes the efforts made toward protesting police brutality. While the opposing side tends to respond with such phrases as “I breathe easy, because I obey the law”, which then galvanizes their position.
Something to consider would be what it means to breathe. Breathing is defined as “taking air into the lungs and then expelling it, especially as a regular physiological process”. For Eric Garner this process was difficult for him in the final moments of his life. Some have responded and said “If you can talk, then you can breathe.” However this response does not consider that Mr. Garner had been breathing for all of his life. The moment in which he was dying he could feel a difference in his ability to take in air and expel it from his lungs. It was difficult for him, it was not as easy as it had been before, and the only way to articulate this difference was for him to state “I can’t breathe”, repetitively in the hopes that someone would do something to help him.
So technically the naysayers are right, he could actually breathe because in order to talk you must be able to breathe. However here in Eric Garner’s death lies a metaphor for privilege. Much like considering what Mr. Garner’s words meant as he died one must look deeper at the concerns of black people as they live their daily lives. What may sound like a repetitive complaint is actually a valid grievance. While their opportunities are not completely cut off, they are restricted. It is difficult for them to complete the same actions as white counterparts without some degree of additional labor. One could even argue it is difficult for them to commit the same crimes and expect the same punishment. Repetitively they renounce the injustice that does not allow them to live life as freely as others however continuously they are disregarded. In a “post racial” society it is easy to think that the claims made by people of color are unsubstantiated.
It is wrong to invalidate the claims of oppressed people because of a percieved technicality. At first glance the words of a dead man may just seem like cannon fodder that fuels those who support or detract from the anti police brutality movement. However a deeper looks shows that there is more to be understood when a person is simply asking for help.
Perhaps all should take a deep breath and listen closely.