I Can’t Breathe

The streets of several cities in the United States are at a boiling point. The detonator: a succession of cases that combine police brutality with deaths involved and controversial decisions by juries, and with African-American citizens who feel that there has been no justice; that racial violence is still both latent and real.

The episode that has captured such symbolism is that of Eric Garner, who was arrested for being a cigarette vendor in New York last July in a procedure that included the use of an illegal hold by police officer Daniel Pantaleo. Garner eventually suffocated and, while dying, said, “I can’t breathe.”

The last words of the victim have been the main slogan of those who have taken to the streets to protest after learning on Wednesday that a jury decided not to prosecute Pantaleo.

The cup has been overflowing. The outrage that led to this outcome was caused by a mixture of three recent episodes: Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was fatally shot by police officers while manipulating a toy gun in Cleveland, Ohio; that of Michael Brown, fallen in similar circumstances in Saint Louis, Missouri, in which the jury made the same decision as in the Garner case, and Trayvon Martin, shot dead by a guard at Sanford, Florida. Here, the jury found that the person who caused the death acted in self-defense through a “fear of the feeling of being attacked,” as established state law, and for that reason, chose to acquit him.

The framework of these protests is the paradox that results from seeing how old racial prejudices against this population persist among authorities and a certain sector of society, in times in which not only the occupant of the White House, but also the attorney general, Eric Holder, is of the same origin — prejudices that become evident in police abuse — as well as an obvious bias in the application of justice.

In this country, an African-American is four times more likely to be deprived of his liberty without due cause than white, as recognized last week by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It is painful to see that the arrival of an African-American to the presidency of the north is not the happy ending of a long struggle for equality, but just one step in a path made to look longer and steeper by the conduct of these officers, who also evidently have support.

But what should cause the most concern is the growing sense of frustration as a result of seeing that the architecture of the judicial system is more vulnerable than previously believed, a fact that violates the basic principle of equality of all citizens before the law.

As one protester in Brooklyn put it: “It’s not just outrage at the police, its outrage at a system that allows them to do terrible things.”

Fifty years after the enactment of the landmark civil rights law that banned any kind of racial segregation, it is evident that this still does not fully meet its promise. With a change in the law, there has to be a cultural transformation. Ultimately, what these days of turmoil make clear is that, perhaps to the surprise of many, equality in this country remains a work in progress.

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