Why We Can’t Breathe
Why the Cries of Eric Garner Have Spawned a National Movement
By: Rev. Dr. Marshall E. Hatch New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church of Chicago The Leader’s Network, Board Chairman
The cries of Eric Garner have arrested our national consciousness. Before his death, most of Garner’s brushes with law enforcement revolved around the selling of loose cigarettes; a poor man’s hustle if there ever was one. Garner’s last deadly arrest, captured on video, happens as he appears to be innocent of his usual petty crime. Breaking up a fight between two locals, Garner is harassed by police called to the scene. He appears to plead with the police. Not guilty. Not today. Taken down by the police, he can’t breathe. Death.
The lack of a simple indictment from a Staten Island grand jury in Garner’s death, even with a recording of the police overkill, has captured the uneasy spirit of our times. How can we explain nation-wide reaction of outrage across racial and cultural barriers? Garner’s eleven cries, “I can’t breathe”, have fueled a national movement beyond a local case of New York police abuse. The tragic fates of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others have been stitched together in a national dialogue about police brutality, unjust justice, and devalued black life. But it is Garner’s public plea to breathe that has spurred widespread discontent.
The national grass-roots protests are so obviously disproportionate to Garner’s singular tragedy. We have a full-blown national “I can’t breathe” protest movement that has no identifiable national leaders, nor a specific national legislative agenda. It’s as if the nation can’t breathe because the viral video of poor Garner being overtaken by a gang of police reflects a national sense of imbalance. A restless nation, with its ideals and the stifling realities of average citizens so disconnected, struggles to find its’ bearings and catch its’ breath.
The Garner protest movement has racial overtones, but its’ meaning has moved well beyond mere racial paradigms. These organic multiracial responses to Garner’s video taped demise points to an American post-racial future, led by young people who have already outgrown America’s race based institutional hypocrisies and who are filled with anxieties about the quality of the nation and world they will inherit. Garner’s breathing difficulties have become metaphor for our national exasperation. The “can’t breathe” movement points to several potentially explosive issues of our national discontent in the twenty-first century.
One, there is the ever widening disparity between the super wealthy class and the rest of us. The outcomes of unregulated capitalism in the twenty-first century are severely out of balance. That no persons from the Wall Street elite have been held accountable for the 2008 tanking of American economy is a source of simmering maladjustment. The banks too big to fail have become even bigger. The housing market crashed from predatory lending schemes, banks were bailed out, while homeowners and their families were left drowning in the Great Recession. Without upward mobility, class systems become caste systems. The very poor are also left adrift as social services are cut by broke local governments. Lean municipal and state governments cover budget shortfalls by squeezing fragile urban families with fines, fees, and covert revenue schemes.
Two, the outsized role of money in American politics means that the actual power of government is far removed from the common citizen. The Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision made a bad situation worse. The “pay to play” corruption of American politics is at an all time high, while voter interest and participation are at new lows. At a time of widening wealth disparity, personal wealth directly translates into pubic office, and political influence and access. Intuitively average Americans know that voting may only serve to legitimate an increasingly illegitimate government for and by the super rich. Increasingly they engage in the passive protest of non-participation. Increasing taxation without representative government is a recipe for growing social instability.
Three, the burgeoning burdens of student loan debt tells young Americans all they need to know about the bankruptcy of our national values and shortsightedness of our national vision. For too many young people, college bound means student loan bondage. The dream higher education as the ladder to generational upward mobility has become a nightmare of indentured servitude, as graduates are released into a weak job market with twenty years of debt to repay for college. Student loan debt now outpaces credit card debt. Hopes of pursuing lives of meaningful contribution and purpose are drying up like “raisins in the sun”. No wonder young people feel to need to embrace Garner’s cries as the mantra of a national movement. They can’t breathe.
Even our most progressive leaders feel stuck between the budget constraints of pensions liabilities for retirees and education for our young. The creative energies of the occupy movements of 2011, used so skillfully by the Obama reelection campaign of 2012, have now morphed into a national organic campaign against imbalances of power between the citizen and the illegitimate law enforcements of the corporate state. The current movement begs for critical analysis to give context and direction for its’ dynamic, spiritual energies.
Where can we go from here? We need organizations and patrons who can help develop local and national legislative and economic development agendas that de-concentrate capital, wealth, and social power. We need post racial leaders, across the ideological spectrum, that are committed to leading our nations institutions beyond the quagmires of institutional racism. With reform immigration polices, and with the demographic changes in America’s immediate future, we need to re-energize the Republic and reimagine dispersed, democratic capitalism. We need radical election reform to check to outsized influence of money in politics. We desperately need selfless leaders with long term vision for our peoples and our environment. In the long term, soulless global corporatism hinders human flourishing and human survival.
Over fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., raised and answered the question of racial justice, “why we can’t wait”. “Why we can’t breathe”, is a question just as urgent in our times. In broad terms, the cry in this season is a call for democratized capital and the freedom of upward mobility. Social movements often come to us spontaneously by spiritual stirring, led by the young with ideals and daring. But movements become fruitful by intentional, sustained pursuit of well defined public policies that reimagine and renegotiate the social contact. America needs a breathe of fresh air and a new moral vision where all people matter. This generation is proving once again that the spirit of breathing collective human hope cannot be stopped.