The labored breathing of black America has grown more intense since the state-sanctioned choke hold death of 43-year-old Eric Garner last summer on Staten Island, N.Y. You can feel it—chests seizing, eyes watering, in-out, in-out—as it slices through the hot desperation of a nation struggling not to collapse onto itself.
Gil Scott Heron was right and he was wrong. The revolution has been both live and televised with “pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay.” Some people have tuned out, while others have turned up. It is an uprising engorged with the blood of our dead and the righteousness of our rage, causing city after city to catch-a-fire when it explodes.
Though the #BlackLivesMatters movement recently celebrated its two-year anniversary, it moved to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness during the summer of death that began with Garner’s killing on July 17, 2014.
The temperature that day was a muggy 84 degrees. Garner, 6-foot-3, 350 pounds, had reportedly just broken up a fight and was posted up on the corner of Victory Boulevard and Bay Street when Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo walked over and accused him of selling loose cigarettes—the hood calls them “loosies.”
Sensing danger, then-22-year-old Ramsey Orta began recording the exchange between “Biggie”—the nickname by which he called the “good dude” he’d known from “around the way” for about four years—and Pantaleo. “He’d give you the shirt off his back,” Orta would say of Garner in a later interview.
Orta’s shaky video captured multiple officers surrounding the man family and friends called a “gentle giant,” and Garner’s last words, both powerful and chilling, are carved into the hearts and minds of countless people:
Get away ... for what? Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today .... Everyone standing here will tell you I didn’t do nothing. I did not sell nothing ...
Because every time you see me, you want to harass me. You want to stop me ... I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone.
Please, please, don’t touch me. Do not touch me ... I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
Eric Garner lost his life trying to be free. He just wanted to be free.
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