The New York Daily News front page and editorial cartoon reacting to the grand jury decision not to indict the police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner.

Isaiah J. Poole

“I can’t breathe.”

There is more to this chant – the haunting last words of Eric
Garner before he died at the hands of New York City police
that were echoed in demonstrations around the country
Wednesday night – than a protest against the epidemic of
police brutality against black men.

African Americans still can’t fully breathe in America under the
smog of racism, which permeates the lives of black and brown
people from the streets of Ferguson, Mo., to the White House.

The fact that Garner – accused of selling individual cigarettes on
the street of a down-and-out section of Staten Island for 50 cents
a piece – could be choked to death by a police officer and that
incident not even come before a court of law is but the latest
reflection of a justice system that is persistently unfair to
African-American people.

But it is not only the justice system. It is also an economic system
in which African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed
as whites, have fewer economic assets, are more likely to be
trapped in communities that are literally unhealthy and where
selling individual cigarettes on the street is one of the few viable
ways to get by.

Few people remember when in the 1970s smog levels were so
high in some American cities that there were “red alert” days
when people were encouraged to stay off the streets if they had
respiratory problems. But the nation showed the resolve – facing
the resistance of polluting industries – to put laws in place to
control emissions and begin the process of cleaning up the
skies. As a result, our air is cleaner, people are healthier, and
the economy benefited.

We likewise need to recognize the smog of our racial history that
permeates our institutions and inhibits the ability of all of us to
breathe. We may not all recognize it, but this is poisoning us all.
We have to recognize it, in all of its pernicious forms, and resolve
as a nation to do what it takes to create a nation in which all of
us – regardless of who we are – can breathe free.