We Can't Breathe: I Marched With The Protestors In NYC

by John Haltiwanger

When I first heard the news that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for fatally shooting an unarmed African-American teen, I was distraught, but simultaneously unsurprised.

It's very rare for police officers to get formally charged with a crime, particularly if it involves an incident that occurred while they were on duty. Not to mention, the evidence surrounding the case is quite convoluted, with conflicting autopsies and varying eyewitness reports.

All the same, it would seem logical that conflicting evidence should lead a case to go to trial in order for the facts to be laid out and deliberated over meticulously. Unfortunately, however, this was obviously not the opinion of a St. Louis County grand jury.

Regardless of the circumstances of the Michael Brown shooting, it's readily apparent that this country is plagued by some very serious issues. Racism, oppression and police brutality are unfortunate aspects of American society.

And, like so many things, the first step toward solving a problem is admitting that you have one.

Barely a week after the upsetting decision surrounding the Michael Brown case, we were reminded of our demons once again when a Staten Island grand jury declined to return an indictment in the Eric Garner case.

In July, an NYPD officer placed Eric Garner in a chokehold as he was being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, a non-violent crime. Chokeholds are forbidden by NYPD guidelines. Garner was unarmed, African-American and 43 years old.

The entire incident was filmed. In the footage, you can clearly hear Garner stating, "I can't breathe," before his body goes limp. Ultimately, the incident was fatal and Garner's death was ruled a homicide. The video footage is tragic and heartbreaking.

In spite of all this, the officer involved was not indicted. Unlike the Mike Brown case, where the facts were disputed, this was caught on tape and it's clear that Garner did not pose a threat, nor was such force required.

The officer's excessive actions led to the unnecessary death of a father of six.

Following the announcement, New York City erupted in protest. I decided to join them.

I started at Union Square, where a small crowd began to gather around 5 pm. Eventually, I made my way over to Times Square, where thousands of people came together to express their anger over a system that does not hold police accountable.

When I emerged from the subway, I was greeted by a sea of noise. There was a palpable anger amongst the protestors, but also a sense of peace and solidarity. They were not there to support violence, but to oppose it entirely.

It was difficult to see so many people in that much pain, but also inspiring to see them come together to stand against an unjust system.

Police officers, barricades and police vehicles were ubiquitous. It felt as if the NYPD had been preparing for weeks, maybe even months, for this event.

I meandered my way into the crowd and found myself standing behind a father and his son, who must've been around 5 or 6 years old. The boy was chanting along with the rest of the protestors and I wondered if he knew the piece of history he was now a part of, or if he would only realize it years later.

I ended up marching with the protestors for close to four hours. The entire experience was surreal. We were walking through traffic and down Sixth Avenue in mass numbers. Cars were stalled as far as the eye could see.

Some of the drivers I passed by were visibly frustrated, while others were reaching out their windows to high-five protestors and honking their horns in support of the thousands who walked beside me. Some simply gave up and abandoned their cars to join in.

In some places, including Columbus Circle and in front of Radio City Music Hall, hundreds of protestors lay down on ground. They were yelled at by police officers and threatened with arrest if they did not remove themselves "from the roadway."

There were many chants throughout the protests. Some of them were not very tasteful, but an understandable consequence of a city in grief.

The one that will stick with me forever, however, is "We can't breathe." It was a small but powerful alteration to the last words of a man who did not deserve to die. With these words, an entire city expressed solidarity with Eric Garner and his family.

More than that, America's largest and greatest urban center revealed how suffocated this country feels. We can't breathe while injustice exists and while those who are meant to protect us abuse common citizens with impunity.

A nation is a product of its history. The United States has accomplished a great deal in its short but storied existence. If we are going to be completely honest about this, much of this was achieved by oppressing and exploiting others.

Our European ancestors brought over diseases that decimated indigenous populations while simultaneously pushing them off their lands.

When we had finally acquired the land, we stole people from their native lands in Africa and violently forced them to cultivate the stolen territory. It began the history of racism and discrimination in America.

We're still dealing with the legacy of slavery, which evolved into Jim Crow and today into an unjust criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts people of color.

I am a white male, and the descendant of slave owners. Due to my position on the habitual presence of racism in the United States, some might argue that I have what is often referred to as "white guilt."

No, I am not guilty. I didn't commit those crimes against humanity. I will not feel guilty for something I did not do. I am, however, aware.

I am aware that I am a product of privilege. I am aware that my ancestors came here voluntarily, while the ancestors of African Americans were torn from their homelands and forced to work under oppressive conditions for hundreds of years.

I am aware that when my parents were born, blacks and whites couldn't sit at the same table or use the same public facilities in many parts of this country. I am aware that blacks have faced systematic violence, imprisonment, prejudice and disenfranchisement.

I am aware that the history of this country has created conditions in which being born black is inherently disadvantageous. I am aware that, even today, I am less likely to be arrested and imprisoned than my black peers, even for committing the same crime.

In other words: I am cognizant of my white privilege.

I am not asking for a pat on the back for this. I'm highlighting that while this country has come a long way when it comes to race relations, we obviously still have a long way to go.

Like the protestors in Ferguson, New York City and all across the country, it's up to everyone to stand up and demand change.

"Democracy" is derived from the Greek words "demos," meaning people, and "kratos," meaning power. They come together to mean "the power of the people."

It's time for the people to truly exercise their power.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Elite Daily.