– “He shouldn’t have resisted…”
Before you offer up that caveat when discussing Eric Garner, please understand two very basic concepts.
The first: Fight-or-flight.
Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology/biology/anatomy (etc…) class has heard the term fight-or-flight. It is the body’s response to stress, which may be a perceived attack or threat to survival. When faced with danger, you either decide to defend yourself or flee to safety.
The second: Breath-holding and breath at breakpoint.
Breath holding is voluntarily holding one’s breath out of water. The breakpoint is the moment when your body takes over and you involuntarily take a breath [Parks, 2005]. In other words, your body will literally force you to take a breath, hence why you may have heard that it is impossible to commit suicide by holding your breath.
Now, imagine the following scenarios:
1) You’re sitting at a dinner table, your elbows gently nudging those of the friend seated next to you. This is the first time that you’ve all been together in the last six months. You marvel at the delicious spread available before you. You take a mental note to pace yourself but you know that you’re going to pile too much food on your plate. You bring a forkful of one of the many delicious side dishes to your mouth. It’s salty and crunchy. There’s a hint of nuttiness. As you go back for a second bite, you start to feel flushed. The temperature in the room rises. The air supply seems to be quickly depleting yet no one seems to notice. Your throat feels tighter and tighter. You panic and try to take deep breaths. Your airways are swelling and there’s less and less room for the oxygen to come in. You desperately claw at your throat. Your eyes bulge as you desperately try to gasp for air. In your despair, you send plates and cutlery flying on the floor; grab your neighbor’s arm as your pleas for help are met with panic when your friends suddenly realize that you can’t breathe.
2) It’s a hot summer day and you decide to go to the local pool. You notice the neighborhood kids splashing around in the corner. Some of the high school girls are sunbathing in their bikinis. You dive in and immediately feel the cool relief of the water on your skin. You’re not the strongest swimmer so you’re always careful to stay close to the shallow end. However, you decide to close your eyes and let the water carry you. The water splashing against your skin sings you a lullaby. You hear a distant noise; open your eyes, only to realize that you’ve floated into the deep end. You try to swim back but don’t seem to make any progress. The shallow end seems to get further away as you vigorously paddle. Your arms and legs are getting tired. Your mind is racing. You forgot to tell anyone that you were coming to the pool and all of your attempts at screaming result in you swallowing a sizeable amount of chlorinated water. You stop swimming to rest your limbs but immediately start to sink. Your eyes sting underwater and the lack of oxygen forces you to rush back to the surface. At this point, you’re too tired to stay afloat. You keep sinking, slowly drowning, wondering if anyone will come and save you.
In both of those scenarios, do you patiently wait to regain the ability to breathe or do you desperately fight for your life? Can you rationalize what’s happening and be aware of your surroundings? Or is your brain firing signals to your body to alert it of the danger?
So why is so difficult to understand why Eric Garner might have resisted? To recognize that perhaps this man’s brain, as he repeatedly shouted that he couldn’t breathe, was sending signals to his body telling him to fight for his life? That his humanity gave him no other choice as the grim reaper’s hands held him in a chokehold?
Research shows that physicians are “twice as likely to underestimate the pain of their Black patients than all other ethnicities combined” [Staton et al., 2007]. Minority patients are “more likely to experience delays in proper treatment and follow-up after positive screening tests” [Anderson et al., 2009]. Actually, the ethnic/racial disparities in the management of pain are persistent across settings (post-op, ER) and types of pain (chronic, acute, cancer) etc… [Green et al., 2003].
So, while you might be tempted to say that “While unfortunate, this had nothing to do with race. The officer might have done the same thing to a White person.” I don’t have that luxury. I know that the officer ignored Eric’s cries of pain. “I can’t breathe” fell on deaf ears. Because Black people’s physical (as well as emotional) pain is ignored.
So that’s why Eric Garner resisted. And that’s why we have to resist.
Because before you can see that #Blacklivesmatter, you also need to recognize that #Blackpain is real. Because I’m tired of having to convince you to see our humanity. I’m tired of this endless song and dance to prove that we have hopes, fears, insecurities, aspirations and worries. Tired of carrying around the fear that my failures will be representative of all Black people, but my successes, only indicative of the individual. Tired of being scared for the safety of the men in my life; because I’ve seen classmates and colleagues stopped for fitting a description, so vague, it could encompass any Black man from Prince to Shaq.
Yes, all lives matter. But not all bodies have the same bull’s-eye tattooed across their chest.
Like Eric Garner did, we feel, we hurt, we bruise, we burn, we bleed, we cry.
Like him, we can’t breathe.
Parkes, M. J. (2006). Breath-holding and its breakpoint. Experimental physiology, 91(1), 1-15.
Staton, L. J., Panda, M., Chen, I., Genao, I., Kurz, J., Pasanen, M., … Cykert, S. (2007). When race matters: disagreement in pain perception between patients and their physicians in primary care. Journal of the National Medical Association, 99(5), 532–538.
Anderson, K. O., Green, C. R., & Payne, R. (2009). Racial and ethnic disparities in pain: causes and consequences of unequal care. The Journal of Pain,10(12), 1187-1204.
Green, C. R., Anderson, K. O., Baker, T. A., Campbell, L. C., Decker, S., Fillingim, R. B., … & Vallerand, A. H. (2003). The unequal burden of pain: confronting racial and ethnic disparities in pain. Pain medicine, 4(3), 277-294.