I Can’t Breathe: Systematic Police Brutality in the United States

Minneapolis, in full light of day, George Floyd, an African American man, age 46 was lynched by a police officer of European descent. His execution was transmitted live on Facebook and has led to a global movement fighting against police brutality and ongoing impacts of polices and laws designed to protect and support European descendants. 

George Floyd was handcuffed and laid on the street with his head to one side.  The police officer, Derek Chauvin, had his knee around his neck and two other officers were holding him by the waist and legs for over eight minutes.  George Floyd’s final words were “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe. My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Please, please. I can’t breathe.” The police officers continued to hold him until the ambulance arrived to verify his death.  This murder comes amid multiple news reports of other African Americans who were also killed by police in the United States. 

SAN JOSE, CA – MAY 29: A protester takes a knee in front of San Jose Police officers during a protest on East Santa Clara Street in San Jose, Calif., on May 29, 2020, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

To understand the current situation of what is happening in the United States, it is necessary to understand the country from a historical perspective not just from the sanctioned press or Hollywood.  The real story of this country is how American society has been built on the grounds of white supremacist ideology.  The murder of George Floyd is part of systematic and institutionalized violence against the African and Native American population that is based on this same ideology.

This ideology goes back to the arrival of Europeans in America. The colonizers saw the land as a new beginning, the land was fertile, extensive and opened the possibility of wealth. In the early 1500s, most people living in Europe were poor, landless and uneducated farmers. The United States represented an opportunity to build a new life. During the colonial period under English rule, new settlers on the mainland had only one problem to face:    

“… the Puritans were not initially sure about the planned extent of the New Canaan and were inclined anyway to see the land beyond as a horrible and desolate desert, full of beasts and wild men.” 

The first to arrive began a process of dehumanizing the original population of America, stating that it was possible that these people did not have a soul as they did not worship the Christian God.  “Every activity, personal and communal, was irreducibly part of the holy war against Satan and the infidels.”  As a result of an exclusive and non-inclusive theology, emphasis was placed on the purity of the European descendant community in the new territory, in such a way that the white community was the only one that could determine who was inside or outside. No dark-skinned person could be treated as equal.

The enslavement of people with dark skin, descendants of African and native populations who had survived the genocide executed in the early centuries, was regulated under law and supported by a theological text based on verses of the Old Testament which was accepted. Europeans translate these texts for their benefit, and the new earth. The skin color determined the position of each person in society. In this construction, some were considered children of God, while others were a simple part of the creation that were to be submissive.   

The independence of the United States in 1776 did not change the established slavery and racism regime. It was decided to maintain the separation laws because its theology, culture and politics were built on the basis of exclusion.  After the Civil War and the struggle for the abolition of slavery, African – American communities began to gather to live in peripheral and rural communities that did not have services , where they had to work with little pay, without land or possession. They remained the most impoverished population in the country. 

As supremacy theology continued to flourish in all sectors of society, a priesthood soon re-emerged. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), in white robes and faces covered with much of the pomp and circumstances of the Christian church, began to serve as executors of white superiority through terrorist violence against African American and native communities. These extrajudicial killings, fires, rapes and lynchings forced beliefs and, because they were done anonymously, were rarely prosecuted. The KKK hid in the shadows when it was decided to create the local police who publicly adopted the job of safeguarding white communities.      

The role of the Protestant church, which continued to practice Puritanism especially at the turn of the century, is incredibly revealing and complicit. The church decided not to address the laws of segregation, massacres, lynchings, persecution and impoverishment experienced by the new African American communities freed from slavery. While most white Protestants remained silent, a group of African American pastors, activists, and theologians rose to denounce discrimination in society. Leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King who wrote in 1958:

“Segregation, both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifiable … I had never been able to accept the fact of having to go to the back of the bus … I could never adapt. separation of schools, hospitals, bathrooms, water drinkers separated between whites and people of color, partly because the separate was always unequal.”

Dr. King in his peaceful protest showed resistance by taking to the streets and displaying a living gospel message that said, “There is a creative power that works to break down mountains of evil and level the peaks of injustice. God still works through the history.” Although he preached nonviolent protests, he suffered firsthand violence. People torched his house, he received threats of death, critical white pastors told him to leave everything in the hands of justice, and not preach against segregation. But he continued to denounce segregation and racism. Throughout his ministry he was arrested, attacked by the police, until he was finally assassinated by the government in 1968.

In this long history of inequality, four centuries of white supremacy now weigh on the shoulders of young people who continue to experience institutionalized violence in the country. For decades, the economic system has continued to widen the gap between rich and poor, between the privileged and the oppressed. Understanding the historical journey of the United States places in better context the current protests that we see on the ground.  The idea of police reform and Black Lives Matter are in direct result of a historical and theological dehumanization seen in white supremacist ideology. The protests are encapsulated very succinctly in the words of activist Tamika Mallory as some people complain about some violence associated with the protest:  

“Don’t talk to us about looting. Y’all are the looters. America has looted Black people. America looted the Native Americans when they first came here, so looting is what you do. We learned it from you. We learned violence from you. We learned violence from you. The violence was what we learned from you. So if you want us to do better, then, damn it, you do better.”

The 8 minutes and 46 seconds in which George Floyd said, “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe” are not just George’s words, they are the words and feelings of thousands of people killed for their skin color through institutionalized violence in this country. Young people who are on the streets around the country and around the world cannot breathe either under the stains of systematic oppression.  The pueblo has decided to go out into the streets and march and protest for  drastic change in policies, this new generation is not going back.

Social psychologist and contextual theologian, Yenny Delgado (she/her/ Ella) writes about  the intersectionality between politics, faith, and resistance.  The column Publica is an ongoing dialog to encourage thought on the voices of the marginalized people who struggle for greater diversity in all aspects of society.  

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