May 27, 2020 by Dimitri Hepburn

We Still Can’t Breathe

I feel trapped. Over the past few days I’ve felt restrained, as if someone were yanking on my collar, as if my very skin were too tight, like I can’t breathe. Yesterday was Memorial Day. Next door, my neighbor’s huge American flag waves proudly. At some point yesterday, I paused to admire the beauty of that flag as the sun shone through, giving it an almost mesmerizing glowing effect. It’s the kind of thing you take your camera out to capture, only to be disappointed when the photo doesn’t compare to the image your eyes and brain were able to synthesize in the moment. There was a time I would have tried anyway to capture that image. But yesterday, Memorial Day, I didn’t bother to pick up my camera to take a picture of my neighbor’s flag. I didn’t stop to take a picture of the flags I saw in the neighborhood as I went for a walk. I didn’t bother to post pictures to Instagram with a patriotic caption. Something was holding me back.

Yesterday my daughter asked me for a hug. As I walked into her bedroom, I paused the video on my phone. As we embraced, she asked me what I had been watching. I explained that I had been watching a video of the presumptive Democratic nominee for President talking to a crowd of people at a campaign event. In the video, someone in the audience of mostly white, middle aged voters, had apparently asked about the notorious Crime Bill. In response, the candidate said “Remember, the crack epidemic came from the Bahamas.” Having been born in the Bahamas, and raised in New York during the crack epidemic, it struck me as odd that I had never heard that before. Of course I am aware drug shipments came through the Bahamas due to its proximity to Florida and the countless small cays that could serve as waypoints for smugglers. Growing up, it was not uncommon to see empty crack vials in the playground of my elementary school and in the parking lot across from my church, strewn in a corner like cigarette butts. However, I had never heard the crack epidemic blamed on the country of my birth. It seemed an odd connection. The candidate went on to say “And we were told by medical doctors at the time that because it permeated the membrane of the brain more quickly, it was the ‘Crack, you never come back!’ It was somehow fundamentally different than someone in a beautiful neighborhood like this sniffing a line of cocaine… would get not automatic sentence for.” This wasn’t an old video from 1994. This was a video depicting the candidate’s current thinking with the benefit of hindsight. I had reposted the video, adding the caption “This is the guy I have to vote for because his racism is cut with baking soda.” I answered a few of my daughter’s questions about the video and explained that I felt stuck. She knows that for me, voting for the incumbent is not an option. The president has unabashedly demonstrated his embrace of racism, both as a personal ideology and as a tool, in a way that I feel has done lasting damage to our country. My daughter asked why I would, even given the alternative, decide to vote for someone I did not have full confidence in rather than simply not voting. The conversation continued, perhaps longer than her interest in the topic lasted. Her polite nodding seemed to be a gift to me. She could tell I didn’t need her to understand everything I was saying, I just needed to say it out loud in that moment. 

A picture of my neighbor’s flag from a year I was more inclined to take a patriotic picture.

Later in the day, before heading out the door for a walk around the neighborhood, I saw another video on social media. It was a video, new but familiar, depicting a woman angrily yelling at the man holding the camera. As she focused her attention on the intended victim of her ire, she held her dog by its collar. The dog squirmed and wriggled, trying to stand up on its hind legs to relieve the pressure of the collar, which surely was making it nearly impossible for him to breathe. The dog’s struggle didn’t seem to register as more than a distraction to her as she threatened to call the police on the man holding the camera and “tell them that there’s an African American man threatening my life.” She said it in the way I once told some kids who stole my basketball that my big brother was going to come get it, which he did. I didn’t intend to replay the video multiple times. However, I let the minute-long clip replay over and over as the anger in me grew. As the video inevitably went viral, people added their commentary from all corners of the internet. I stopped reading when I saw the conversation in some threads drift toward a perceived equivalency between the plight of the dog and the mortal threat against the human recording the video. I put my phone in my pocket, proud that I had the willpower to stop myself from diving deeper into threads that would undoubtedly cause my mood to deteriorate on an otherwise pleasant walk through my North Park neighborhood. I looked around and saw star-spangled banners waving in front of the houses of proud Americans in my neighborhood, a neighborhood that is so very American in its diversity. I didn’t think to take a picture of those flags flying over manicured lawns as I have in the past.

The rest of the day was pleasant. My mom and I rode our bicycles around an empty parking lot while my daughter rode her skateboard. My wife and daughter baked and decorated a cake for my friend’s birthday, which we delivered, being mindful of the restrictions social distancing places on celebrations during this pandemic. A few of us got together on a Zoom call to congratulate and celebrate our newlywed friends, who have had to change gears and figure out how to have a wedding in these strange times. In spite of the viral videos, the day was a good day. 

This morning I woke up, took a shower, got dressed in a shirt and real pants, checked my calendar, and made coffee. I looked over my notes from last week’s meetings and checked my email. I stopped to scroll through social media and saw yet another video, just a day later, that made my blood boil. I watched as a white police officer knelt on the neck of a black man who lay shirtless, face down in the street. The people recording the video pleaded with the officer to take his knee off the man’s neck. They tried to reason with the police officer as he knelt on this black man’s body. The people watching this scene unfold in person, in real life in America, turned their attention to the police officer’s partner who, with a cold gaze, told them to stay back. They tried to explain that he wasn’t resisting. After a while he wasn’t even moving. Even as the man lay motionless, the police officer refused to remove his knee from the neck of that black man, later identified as George Floyd. George Floyd was killed. He was murdered. I only watched the video once. 

By now many of us have heard several people share the quote, attributed to James Baldwin, that “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” At this point, though I think of it often, I hesitate to bring up that quote. Perhaps I fear that it will lose its potency and become trite, even to my own ears. What strikes me as I think of the quote today, is that the ubiquity of cameras and the ease with which we can share videos force a kind of consciousness on us all. It is increasingly harder for those whose instinct is to bury their heads in the sand and pretend it’s not happening to do so. Social media has awakened many to the existence of DuBois’ veil, and given more Americans the ability to take a peek behind it. But what comes of the rage Baldwin describes now that a version of “consciousness” is more broadly shared? What are we to do with it? It is growing and festering. It is simultaneously old and worn, new and virulent. We see many young people in Chicago thrashing and flailing wildly in this seemingly inescapable rage. They are tired of being told to calm down and sit still in a world that has given them countless reasons to be angry. We wake up daily in a world where #BlackLivesMatter has been rejected as a hostile battle cry; its power deftly diluted by the embrace of alternatives such as #BlueLivesMatter. We go to sleep every night in a country where problems centuries in the making are put off to be dealt with another day. 

As an immigrant from the Bahamas and a naturalized citizen, I have chosen this country. I’ve sworn oaths and pledged allegiance. At times I have felt patriotism swell inside of me in ways that sound corny when I attempt to put them in words. I feel blessed to have voted for the first Black president and the first woman to win the popular vote in a presidential election. I do not take our democracy for granted. This is one reason recent events have pained me so much. I love America, and yet there are so many ways in which I feel strangled, restrained, suffocated on a daily basis. I am reminded that despite the lofty promises of our nation’s founding documents, the ideals soldiers have fought and died for, we are not there yet. I intend to hold up my end of the bargain as a citizen of this country. I continue to implore these United States of America to bravely live up to that name, to simply honor the promises of freedom and equality made to us at its inception. 

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