I cannot comprehend all that flows from an active wound that is four centuries deep. But I know this: What lung cancer took nine months to do to my mother took less than nine minutes under a police officer’s knee. George Floyd, like my mother, was only 46. While my mother passed with dignity, surrounded by loved ones, Floyd was pressed down on a dirty street over a $20 bill by a man whose duty was to serve and protect.
In palliative care, we consider the sensations of panic, pain, nausea, incontinence or dyspnea each to be so serious as to warrant swift aid. These may have occurred simultaneously in Floyd until death. He had begged the officer for mercy and called him “Sir” – while summoning (just as many orphans do) the supernatural intercession of his late mother.
He met the sort of end reserved for rabid animals and was granted less air than the waterboarded. When found pulseless, no one sprung into panicked action to perform CPR until he was in an ambulance “minutes later.”
Though 25 years have passed since the giver of my own life told me “I can’t breathe,” I mourn again at this refrain from my wider human family. On the news, we watch one murder after another from the “undeniability of devaluation,” and I despair for those entering the electrified grid of bereavement. No one, not even those with privilege, can look away. If my white throat clenches as often as it does, how are others coping? Some spaces get so dark that the entrapped can hardly see light. Hearts that have felt and seen betrayals have been meeting, rising together on the same point:
“No Justice, No Peace.”
Adding insult to pain is the loss of compassion that society was only beginning to cultivate for those struggling with underemployment and substance use disorders. When whites were succumbing to deaths of despair, people paid attention.
George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks had muddled bloodstreams while they were down and out. While one side argues that this was exactly why mental health and social work professionals would have been best at the front line, another sees the toxicology as incriminating for the victims and partially absolving for the officers.
Floyd and Brooks did prison time, bearing carceral scars to their confidence and re-segregating resumes as “caricatures of black boys.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Between the World and Me, pointed out that when the marginalized are raised with commands to work twice as hard, they are being told that they are worth half as much “and yet infinitely punished more harshly.”
Rev. Al Sharpton confronted these double standards and counterproductive beatifications at Floyd’s funeral when he acknowledged him as both “the rejected stone” and the cornerstone of a re-invigorated Black Lives Matter movement.
For months, I have been afraid of not being strong enough to face a swell of patients severely breathless. I’ve begged the Fates to protect us from waves of victims.
On damned statistics and the entrenched environment, Coates also said this: “Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets, where they would take your body … ‘Black-on-black crime’ is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects … To yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.”
As a “blood doctor,” I know to look for every way that a bloodstream can go wrong and to safeguard the blood bank. Blood, like policing, is meant to save but capable of harm, eroding the trust of nations.
I trained through the early AIDS days and watched the transformative judgements of the Krever Commission. I’ve been wondering if the dissolution of the Canadian Red Cross, and the formation of its successors, is a model for police reform. To re-establish confidence in an essential service that spanned a nation and manifested itself in thousands of operational stations, overhaul was necessary. The “too big to fail” theory simply wasn’t going to fly, though perhaps this was because there were tens of thousands of undisputed, equal-opportunity victims and perpetual need.
Diversity is just one way forward. Just as sexual violence victims may prefer certain encounters with people not resembling their perpetrators, neighbourhoods traumatized by a particular law enforcement demographic may, when given the choice, seek help from others who look like them, or who are known to be fair and sympathetic.
We have so much work to do. While training mandates may improve our slow and deliberative way of thinking, the subconscious racist biases that erupt in devastating “fast-thought”/impulse actions may take a generation of better rearing to undo.
Those of us in professions at the sharpest end of risk must take heed. We have to be mindful of seduction by the self-perpetuating advantages that eclipse our view of the experiences and capabilities of candidates who couldn’t come to the plate with high-tuition gains and financially bearable apprenticeships. Shame on us for taking this long to realize why some echelons are so bleached.
It must never be too late to do better. May our primal scream carry every colour and stay loud.