“I can’t breathe.”

by Oseye Boyd

Those were the words uttered by Eric Garner, George Floyd and Cornelius Fredericks, a 16-year-old living in Lakeside Academy youth facility in Michigan after his mother died and his father was sent to prison. 

Like Garner and Floyd, Fredericks died for a minor infraction. On April 29, he threw food at or to another child in the cafeteria. When approached by staff, he threw more food. This was enough to cause staff members to now throw Fredericks to the ground and restrain him. In all, seven adults piled on top of this boy — two on his torso — for about 12 minutes. A nurse at the facility stood by, watching but did nothing to intervene. 

For much of the 18-minute video, Fredericks appears to be unconscious. His pleas of “I can’t breathe” were ignored. He went into cardiac arrest and died on May 1 in a hospital. It was also discovered Fredericks tested positive for COVID-19, a disease that affects the respiratory system.

Garner, Floyd and now Fredericks are just a few of the cases where a Black American told those restraining him he couldn’t breathe and those pleas were ignored. There are countless more that we never hear about. 

The New York Times recently found at least 70 people have died in the last decade after saying, “I can’t breathe.” The ages range from 19 to 65, and their occupations range from chemical engineer, real estate agent, meat salesman, church drummer, registered nurse, doctor and active-duty soldier. Their murders happened in cities across America. According to The New York Times, more than half were Black. 

Conventional wisdom says if you can say, “I can’t breathe,” you’re lying because you have enough breath to talk. I’ve heard and read this many times over. In fact, a sign at the Montgomery County Jail in Dayton, Ohio, said just that as late as 2018 — six years after an inmate died in 2012 because his cries of being unable to breathe were ignored. Robert Richardson’s family sued and Montgomery County, Ohio, settled the lawsuit for $3.5 million. Richardson’s crime: failing to show up for a child support hearing.

The idea that if you can talk you can breathe is faulty, according to Dr. Carl Wigren. While you can muster up enough breath to speak, you may not be able to get enough oxygen in your lungs to actually, well, breathe. If you’ve ever seen someone suffer from an asthma attack, you soon realize they are getting some air but not enough, which is why the inhaler is needed — quickly. They may be able to tell you they’re having trouble breathing, but it’s clear they’re in distress. It’s scary. I’m no medical expert, but I imagine those who said “I can’t breathe” were terrified because they knew they couldn’t breathe properly.

The fact is most of us aren’t medical professionals and don’t know what’s happening inside a person’s body. Police officers say they hear any number of complaints from those being arrested or restrained such as the handcuffs are too tight or the person is cold or hot, etc. I’m sure the complaints become easy to ignore in the cacophony of an arrest, causing one to be desensitized, but saying you can’t breathe should be taken seriously — especially if you’re kneeling on someone’s neck or torso.

Seven adults held Fredericks down. Seven. Why did it take so many to hold one young man down? At one point, one man is just holding Fredericks’ ankle. It’s as if he just had to do something so he found one spot not already taken. Well, he did something, all right. He helped kill a teenage boy. So far, three people have been charged. All should be.

The facility lost its contract with the state and license to operate and there were numerous complaints about the facility before the murder of Fredericks. It’s obvious from watching the video, the youth at the facility are used to seeing adults manhandle their peers. No one seemed fazed. Some of the youth moved the tables out of the way.

Like Breonna Taylor, the death of Cornelius Fredericks took months to come to light. While my heart breaks each and every time an unarmed Black American dies at the hands of the state, I truly believe that it is up to those of us still living to make sure their deaths aren’t in vain. We can’t sit idly by. We have to keep demanding accountability from a system that uses our tax dollars. That’s being patriotic. 

By the way, today would be a good day to arrest those responsible for killing Breonna Taylor.

OSEYE BOYDOseye Boyd

Reprinted from the Indianapolis Recorder

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