“I can’t breathe,” gasped Eric Garner, again and again and again.

“I can’t breathe,” he said as several police officers were on top of him, choking him, pushing his head onto the concrete sidewalk. The man was not resisting arrest; he simply had the temerity to ask a police officer not to touch him. And because he was allegedly selling loose cigarettes, the life was choked out of him.

No one tried to help him or stop the vicious assault (ruled a homicide by the coroner). Emergency medical respondents offered no assistance. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” ought to motivate all Americans, not just African Americans, but Americans of conscience to breathe life and energy into a movement for justice.

Breathing ought to be a simple thing. Air in, air out. It’s not so simple when one’s neck is being choked. Not so simple when one’s spirit is being choked. The image of Garner’s neck in a chokehold, the image of at least four white police officers on top of him, is galling. All the more galling is the invisible choking of spirit that comes when people cannot breathe, cannot speak and cannot respond to injustice.

In historical contexts, how many were as free to speak as Ida B. Wells was when she fought against lynching? Even in her freedom, Wells was threatened and run out of Tennessee, but many feared to speak about lynching — fearing the fact they might be lynched themselves. Can’t breathe. Think of the many African Americans who have served in our armed forces, treated unfairly but still serving nonetheless.

How can any of us breathe in an atmosphere of compounded injustice? How can we breathe in an atmosphere of hypocrisy, when justice has never been blind? We live in a nation where a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, is shot because he has a toy pellet gun, not pointed at police. It is hard to breathe when video makes it absolutely clear it was not necessary for Daniel Panaleo to place Garner in a chokehold. It is hard to breathe when a grand jury comes to an incomprehensible decision, one that defies common sense.

It’s difficult to breathe when an elected official, Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) chooses to blame Garner’s death on his health.

“If he had not had asthma, and a heart condition, and was [not] so obese, almost definitely he would not have died from this,” King told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

King failed to note use of the chokehold was banned by New York Police Department rules in 1993. Instead, there is no shame, no condolence in his insensitivity and ignorance.

Can’t breathe. Whether he is svelte or obese, carrying a briefcase or a bag of skittles, wearing a Hermes suit or a hoodie, behaving respectfully or rudely, a Black man’s safety cannot be guaranteed, especially when a white police officer is involved. The mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and wives of these men hold their breaths, cannot breathe, except to pray for the safety of their loved ones. Would the system be fairer if a white man walking down Park Avenue had the same fears? Would the protests look different if those who were massacred looked different?

Can’t breathe. A metaphor for the African-American condition, juggling the space between hope and despair, between progress and regress. Who would have thought police violence against African-American men would so visibly escalate at a time when our nation’s leader is an African-American man. Can President Barack Obama breathe, or is he in a figurative chokehold when he parses words about the murders of Garner, Michael Brown, and little Rice? Our president faced protest when he criticized James Crowley, the police officer who arrested Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his own front steps in 2009. Now, he offers measured words in response to the outrageousness of grand jury failure to indict.

Garner did not have to die. He did not have to stop breathing. Did his last breath bring life to a movement, or did he gasp that last breath in vain?

Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington, D.C.

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