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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

"I Can't Breathe"

Updated: May 31, 2020

Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on the neck of handcuffed George Floyd in Minneapolis while passers-by begged him to stop before he killed the man.


“Mama . . . Mama.”

These were some of the dying words of George Floyd, which I cannot stop playing in my head. A Minneapolis Police Department officer’s knee on his neck for more than eight minutes as he lay handcuffed on the ground, the 46-year-old man instinctively reached for these words from his childhood. He recalled a plea for comfort that would have been answered with a hug, a kiss, or words of comfort.

“I can’t breathe. Please, I can’t breathe. You’re going to kill me,” Mr. Floyd had managed to say beforehand, amid groans, to no avail.

To hear this grown man call for his mother made me cry. If only his mother could have answered his call. If only she could have appeared and freed her son from the grip of death. If only she could have saved her son.

But she could not hear him, and she did not save him.

Her son became, yet, another black man killed by police.

Once again, Americans rebelled on the street. Once again, Americans asked whether Mr. Floyd’s death would be the catalyst for change. Once again . . .

Mr. Floyd died on May 25. The next day, the Minnesota Police Department fired Officer Derek Chauvin, who held down Mr. Floyd for minutes, and the three officers, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao, and J. Alexander Kueng, who were nearby.

Usually, after a police officer kills a black man, he or she is suspended or put on desk duty. The department and union protect the officer. Not this time. But I’m too tired to applaud this small victory.

Too tired.

This is not a problem for black men or African Americans. This is an American mess, which will not be solved, simply, by the criminal justice system's handling of Mr. Floyd’s death.

There must be a sea change in the United States. There must be a tearing down of systemic racism. It can be done.

First, the national government has to make a heartfelt and formal apology to African Americans. It codified slavery in the Constitution. Therefore, it is only right that it recognizes its complicity and apologizes for it.

A sincere apology would be a morally redemptive act for the descendants of slaves and owners, and all Americans who have inherited a country built by slaves and an unequal socioeconomic structure biased against blacks.

Second, in an effort to reduce the egregious wealth gap, there must be economic reparations, specifically, funds earmarked for education and housing, and savings for children, accessible when they reach age 17, for the same purposes.

Only after an apology and reparations can the United States begin to shed its racist heritage and embrace African Americans as first-class citizens like everyone else.

Mr. Floyd, may you rest in peace, sadly, a peace you were not able to find in the United States as a black man.

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