We Can't Breathe: The Chokehold on Democracy and Justice in America

Eric Garner's dying cry, "I can't breathe," has become a rallying cry of protest from demonstrators in major cities across the country. Last weekend, the Notre Dame women's basketball team wore warm-up shirts emblazoned with that pathetic phrase. That phrase has had such resonance across America that Fred Shapiro, author of the annual Yale Book of Quotations, made "I can't breathe" the top quote of the year in 2014.

The phrase has, to an extent, transcended the liberal versus conservative divide. After watching the video, Fox News' leading pundit, Bill O'Reilly, was moved to express his disapproval of Garner's treatment:

"All Americans, every one of us, should pity Mr. Garner and his family. He did not deserve what happened to him; and I think Officer Pantaleo and every other American police officer, everyone, would agree with me. He didn't deserve that."

Although many feel sorry for Eric Garner and his family, not everyone agrees with O'Reilly. Bob McManus of the New York Post wrote that Garner was to blame for his own death: "He [Garner] was a victim of himself. It's just that simple."

I teach at the University of Notre Dame and live in the city of South Bend. "Those shirts" worn by the women's basketball team are a topic of conversation everywhere I go. In the hallways of the university where the students are taking exams, faculty members have expressed pride in the players and their coach, Muffet McGraw, for showing that sports can teach life lessons. Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame's Athletic Director, defended the team: "They are students first and you want students at a university to be passionate about things, to be engaged in conversations about social issues."

Outside of the university, the reaction to "those shirts" has been far less positive. Some fans believe that the shirts had no place at a basketball game, while others see them as an affront to the values of law and order and an insult to those who risk their lives to enforce it. Anticipating that some fans might misinterpret their intentions, Taya Reimer, the player spokesperson for the team, explained that she and her teammates came up with the plan for wearing the shirt because, "It's an issue we're all passionate about... It's not an anti-law enforcement, anti-anything message. It's just showing condolence for the family, just supporting them." Many fans were not convinced. The South Bend Tribune recently devoted its opinion page to the topic and all of the published letters criticized the student-athletes and university. One reader asked, "So are they now political... Will they also show their support to the 108 policemen killed in 2014 or the 105 killed last year... Or do you just want to honor Eric Garner and the protesters who looted and destroyed property? What committee at ND is deciding who to support and whom to degrade?"

"I can't breathe," has become a "political" statement, but it is much more than that. To echo the captive Eric Garner's words "I can't breathe" is to place oneself in solidarity with those whom the bible called the anawim, those who experience powerlessness as well as poverty. A professor of scripture described the anawim as "the little breaths," those whose voices are too faint to be heard or responded to. Lacking voice, the anawim are defenseless; they cannot even count on equal protection under the law. In 2013, the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy organization, released a report to the United Nations regarding racial disparities in the American criminal justice system. The report charged, "The United States in effect operates two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and minorities." The failure to protect the rights of the most vulnerable among us is a national shame.

We will not move forward as a society until we can bring ourselves to listen and respond to the cries of those whose spirits have been crushed by the chokehold of poverty and racism. Yet even as we attempt to lend our breath, our voice, to champion the anawim, we find ourselves in a chokehold of misunderstanding and mistrust. We can't breathe as a society because we equate politics with partisanship. Instead of deliberating together to solve problems, protect human rights, and advance the common good, we take sides in a zero sum game or drop out of the political process altogether. For the sake of those who are needlessly suffering and dying and for the sake of justice itself, we must free our democracy from the chokehold we have put on ourselves and our politics and breathe again.