America Can’t Breathe

Finding a cure for our other deadly virus.

Halfpoint/ Shutterstock
Halfpoint/ Shutterstock

I’m a white Jewish kid who grew up in New York during the ’60s. To understand why I’m writing about America’s search for a cure to racism in 2020, I’d like you to know a little bit of my back story.

My mother, Roslyn, was the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Growing up in the back rooms of her father’s small market in Long Beach, New York, with two brothers and a sister, my mom knew what it was like to be “the poor kid” and “the Jew” in a wealthy beachside community. She fought hard to fit in, and being attractive, bright, and talented may have helped but it was her tenacity that got her through college. As a young adult and throughout her 92 years, my mother was a fierce advocate for racial justice and equality.   

My dad also grew up in poverty, living with his three brothers in a small fifth-floor walk-up in the Bronx, and, at times, he went to bed hungry. After serving in the army during World War II, my dad started a small business and worked 16-hour days alongside loyal African American and Puerto Rican employees whom he loved and trusted. In their own ways, my parents were role models for how to treat people.

Named for my grandfather’s brother, an Austrian attorney named Kaseal who spoke out against Hitler and was murdered by the Nazis, I had aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins and neighbors who embodied the very best, and the very worst, in us as second-generation Jewish immigrants. I tried to embody the best parts of my background (that is, the qualities of lovingkindness, compassion, fairness, a good sense of humor and love of good deli food); and reject the worst (that is, status-driven, fear-based “more-Jewish-than-thou” arrogance and prejudice). 

My upbringing and experiences as a Jew — being discriminated against, patronized, desecrated, excluded, and beaten — shaped my feelings about racial and religious intolerance and prejudice. From my time in college, marching on Washington in 1968, to my graduate training, teaching and counseling of Latino students in the early 1970s, to the beginnings of my career at a black Baptist church and continuing throughout my adult life, I’ve worked, written, taught, and lived as an advocate for human rights and social justice. And I proudly watched my daughters and their peers carry these values into a new generation of peaceful activism.  

I don’t expect non-Jews to understand what it was like to be given “the Talk” about surviving in an anti-Semitic world by a grandfather whose brother had been killed for speaking out. While I can tell you about discriminatory practices and learning to survive as a Jewish American, I cannot tell you what it’s like being an African American man in America and what form my rage might have taken if yet another member of my tribe had been killed by the police. Watching George Floyd cry out “I can’t breathe!” as he was being suffocated to death by the knee of an investigating officer, was beyond heartbreaking. It was an outrage.

These words, posted by my friend, John Welshons’ and that I adapted, ask us to do the following…

“Imagine being pressed down onto concrete with 200 pounds sitting directly on your neck. Begging for water and mercy as his nose bled and he lost control of his bladder, this grown man was trapped for nine agonizing minutes in handcuffs under the weight of a police officer’s knee… crying because he couldn’t breathe. Once he realized he was slowly being killed, he begged for his life and cried out for his mother. Then, he lost consciousness. Onlookers tried to intervene only to be threatened with pepper spray. The weight of the officer’s knee stayed firm while a first responder demanded that the police check for a pulse. They refused. Off-duty medical personnel begged for the officer to get up. He didn’t. Spectators recorded this all on their cell phones, and later that day the whole world watched a man named George Floyd being murdered by an “officer of the law.” Imagine dying that way. Or having your son die calling out for his “mama.” Our heart’s break for George Floyd, his family, friends and those who have tasted the grotesque cruelty that human beings sometimes inflict upon one another.

Having come from a family of Holocaust survivors, having suffered the loss of my 21-year-old daughter and having worked with countless bereaved mom’s over the years such as Sybrina Fulton, whose innocent son, Trayvon, died at the hands of a security guard, I’ve witnessed this kind of pain and cruelty firsthand. As a white man who has entered his seventh decade of life, I have not spent my life being profiled as a suspect because of the color of my skin — or fearing for my life or the safety of people who look like me. I have, however, witnessed the unspeakable anguish and sorrow of several generations of black and brown Americans as outrage filled their hearts and homes, and then spilled out into the streets. 

Having also worked with sheriffs, chiefs of police, police departments and DAs’ offices that aspired to become the smarter, better, safer, and more just version of themselves, I understand the dangers, challenges, and complexities of law enforcement — a calling that requires an inordinate amount of courage, strength, self-sacrifice, skill, respect, and good moral judgement about what it means to “protect and serve.” My heart goes out to the men and women in law enforcement who have worked diligently in their communities over the decades to create goodwill, safety and social justice. And who would never allow something like this to happen. Some of them are friends, colleagues and fellow advocates of racial equality whom I’ve worked with, side by side, over the years helping families. I know their hearts go out to the Floyd family and those advocating for change. 

And while I’m neither black nor a police officer, and the complete story of what actually happened to George Floyd is still unfolding, I’ve seen more than enough to be completely outraged… and heartsick. I am committed to continue doing whatever it takes to stop anyone with racist and violent intent, whether it be a police officer, armed citizen, security guard or the perpetrator of a crime. Racism, much like COVID-19, is a potentially deadly virus transmitted indiscriminately from one person to another. It is systemic! Creating unspeakable pain. Eroding the soul of our democracy. Threatening the future of our children. Our ability to contain the racism virus, like COVID-19, is also largely dependent on our willingness and ability to prevent community spread. This means washing our hands (of hatred), socially distancing (from haters), wearing a mask (of kindness, compassion and understanding) and supporting the science (rather than the deniers and conspiracy theorists) that will one day hopefully discover a vaccine.  

Watching protestors gather in Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles and other cities around our country calling for justice, venting their outrage, and honoring Mr. Floyd by imploring us to do everything in our power to protect African American men and women from dying at the hands of the police, I experienced four emotions: First, I felt hope that this incident, coming on the heels of Ahmaud Arbery’s and Breonna Taylor’s deaths, and the COVID-19 pandemic, would serve as a game-changing wake-up call — for black, white, and brown leaders and citizens across our country to crack the code of racism and be a tipping point for significant change on all fronts. Second, I felt ashamed of, and outraged by the racism that is still so pervasive in our communities, police departments and society as a whole. Third, I felt scared that my grandkids are going to grow up in a world that is still so full of hatred and could become even more violent if we continue to feed “us versus them” fears and prejudices. And last, having spent a lifetime helping clients, communities, companies and the general public become the better versions of themselves, I felt hope as I saw people across our great nation beginning to work together to eradicate the virus of racism by replacing unlawful prejudice, indifference, inequality, rageful anger and hatred with compassion, social justice, fairness, kindness, and equality.

Listening to George Floyd’s sister describe how valiantly her brother — her children’s uncle — was redefining his life, and how kind a soul he was, was heart-wrenching. And as the newscasts shifted from images of Mr. Floyd being murdered to those of African American men running from stores with stolen televisions, starting fires, taunting the police, and getting arrested, my heart broke even more. 

“If the millions gathered in an expression of civil disobedience are going to be overshadowed, it’s going to reinforce stereotypes of African Americans as thugs, thieves and looters,” I told my fiancé. “We aren’t going to remember the thousands of black, white, and brown people who gathered peacefully in protest — and even wore masks and practiced social distancing. Instead of deepening our empathy for Floyd, his family, and African American’s who have witnessed yet another graphic, horrific “death in police custody,” this is only going to trigger fear. And if that happens, the public will only recall images of vandals looting, setting fires and standing face-to-face with National Guardsmen who were brought in to restore order to another community under siege.” 

How do I know this? In part it’s because I’ve made a life study of how fear works.  And I know that it activates a defensive response called “prejudice.” Watching looters run wild and commit random acts of violence triggers fear, anger and painful memories. I also know this because of black kids who were “bad actors” during my youth. While some of my closest friends were African Americans, the black kids who thought little or nothing about robbing, taunting, harassing, hurting and even killing people scared the crap out of me. To defend myself, and protect the people I loved, I must admit that I developed a prejudice against these kids and the adults who were like them. And I learned to stay on my side of the tracks. If I am being 100 percent honest, that 55-year-old prejudice and distrust still arises in me. There are still times when I fear that I may be in the presence of a bad actor, and I become distrustful. 

Realizing that I’m a carrier of the virus called racism gives me the power to do something about it. And I have! Stopping myself from pre-judging and objectifying other people has not always been easy but I continue to work at it and consider myself to be a work in progress. The love and respect I have for my African American, Latino, Asian, LGBTQ, and staunch Republican friends, classmates, and colleagues and their kids has diminished my fears and prejudices and increased my understanding and compassion. I catch myself becoming defensive and pre-judging people of a different age, gender, ethnicity, religion, political party, race, and/or opinion. And I do my best to listen to, understand and approach them with kindness, respect and compassion. Talk about community spread, by containing the virus of racism in myself, I do not infect others in my community. Acts of kindness and shows of respect when we extend the branch of peace are the “secret sauce” that quells fear, anger, hatred, and prejudice. 

So how does this work in the real world?

Recognizing that our fears and biases are being triggered — and that acts of kindness/shows of respect, can diffuse our prejudices is a start. Real time examples of how kindness and respect can diffuse anger, forge peace and help us all stay focused on the opportunities of the moment are on full display as mayors march arm-in-arm with protesters; as Police Chiefs take a knee with Black Lives Matter leaders who are standing guard in front of Target stores imploring looters and vandals to “go home!” and even escorting them to arresting officers; as prosecutors bring additional charges against the police officers who helped restrain George Floyd and were complicit in his murder. We get to see that the majority of protesters are peaceful, and most want the same kind of changes in our country.  

Another example of catching ourselves being triggered happened to me recently. After saying a friendly hello to some fellow hikers on the trail near my home, and getting enthusiastic responses from all of them, I was taken aback by two young people who walked right past me as though I wasn’t even there. The “story” I made up about these “two young snobs,” who were “probably not from this area” fell apart when I looked back and saw them using sign language. Embarrassed for rushing to judgement, when in truth, realizing that this young deaf couple had not heard a word I said, I was reminded of two things: First, that perception is everything. We don’t know all there is to know about a person, or a given situation, and only perpetuate false narratives when we render random judgements. Second, it takes humility and courage to admit we’ve been wrong or have made inaccurate interpretations.   

It’s also vital to realize that there are, in reality, bad actors of all persuasions. Calling them out and holding them accountable is our choice, if not our responsibility. There must be legal consequences for reckless arrogance, greed, dishonesty and indifference of bad actors whose behavior undermines the integrity of people who are trying to do the right thing. 

My heart has ached watching peaceful protests deteriorate into mayhem, rioting and arson. Yes, I know that the Boston Tea Party eventually led to the American Revolution and taking to the streets helped launch the Civil Rights antiwar, women’s, LGBTQ movements. The Women’s March, a protest that took place one day after our last presidential election, was the largest gathering of its kind in the world. I also know that opportunistic Russian bots, nationalist instigators, radical anarchists and homegrown racists with vested interests in fanning the flames of hatred and chaos in our country are doing their best to promulgate images of African Americans as “thugs.” Even the most liberal amongst us who were watching arsonists and looters in Minneapolis turn a small family-owned business and Native American museum non-profit into collateral damage by torching them could not help thinking of them in this way.

Some American’s will try to step back and put everything in historical perspective. “The cumulative rage African Americans are venting” they will explain, “has built up inside of them after centuries of oppression, victimization and racism — and was detonated by the prime-time T.V. murder of George Floyd.” Despite their disdain for those who are exploiting this tragedy and desecrating Mr. Floyd’s memory with looting, vandalism and arson, these sympathizers will be able to imagine how they might feel if it were their son, grandson, brother, son-in-law, friend, neighbor or fellow parishioner who had been murdered and stay focused on their own outrage. 

But a great many Americans will not be able to do so.

“Don’t ask me to excuse, justify, or sanction mayhem and violence of any kind,” they will say, adding, “and don’t try to convince me that violent protesters are innocent victims of racism and what they’re doing is thereby justifiable.” Are the “bad Jews” I mentioned earlier, “innocent victims of anti-Semitism” whose bad behavior is justifiable? Or do we need to hold people accountable and make arrests when and where evidence of wrongdoing exists? Are we accountable for the choices we make, things we do and their consequences? 

I think we can all agree that decision-making about the consequences of bad behavior must begin with the gathering of facts, investigating what happened and producing evidence. Yes, the world can be a truly ugly and hateful place. And bad actors — be they members of any   divergent group may be understandably bitter, rageful, and even vengeful. They may have been treated unfairly, “profiled” as suspects or judged to be of lesser value over the course of their life because of race, religion, or ethnicity. Years of being diminished, discriminated against and/or the targets of violence have taken their toll. In a perfect world, the destructive and threatening ways these emotions are channeled would not become the headlines. And social change would be made in peaceful ways.  But that’s not how the world works.   

I sometimes think about my uncle Kaseal, and what it was like for him, living as a Jew in the time of Hitler. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be an African American fearing that the lives of my children, grandkids, siblings, family, friends, neighbors and co-workers would be great at risk if they were stopped by the police. But I do share the fears of Jews worldwide who see the rise of white supremacy, nationalism and anti-Semitism as a threat to themselves and their families. 

So, what can we do?

The list of things we can do is endless and span the realm of personal, social, legal, financial, interpersonal, and spiritual responsibility. And each of these areas has within them tangible opportunities for personal and social change. 

First off, all of us have a right, and a responsibility, to voice our objections to George Floyd’s murder, to express the full measure of our outrage and not only demand long-overdue changes, but to help make them happen through our actions. This includes voting, advocacy, bridge-building, policy changing and the introduction of new laws. The role of advocacy, as we listen to, learn from, work together with and respect each other cannot be underestimated.  

Next, we need to channel the expression of pent up anger, rage, resentment and bitterness in a way that does not destroy, threaten or damage people’s lives, property or sources of income — or perpetuate a vicious cycle of vengeance and hatred. Let’s continue to demand justice by turning our tears and outrage into civil action and social change, but let’s be smart and do it in a way that brings about lasting reform in the criminal justice system. Let’s shrink the threads of racism and inequality that exist in so many parts of our society and act in a way that perpetuates hope, compassion and empathy, not fear, hatred and violence. 

Let’s all be accountable as we work together to root out racism, and take bold steps forward toward justice for all. If you’re in law enforcement, you don’t need some guy in California telling you to check your prejudices at the door when you go to work. We’re living in a time when trust in law enforcement has been severely compromised and things like “use of force” policies need to be rewritten. So, roll up your sleeves and work to reform such policies as an ambassador of good will. And no matter what line of work you’re in, who you work for, or what unspoken code of injustice may exist in your workplace, summon the courage to demand the same of your co-workers.

If you find yourself in the middle of a protest or police incident, do what you can to de-escalate the situation. Check your behavior!  Hotheaded provocation, taunting or resisting the authorities even if you’ve done nothing wrong, or being investigated for possible wrongdoing, can set in motion a treacherous and violent escalation with the wrong people. “If someone has it in for you as an African American, Jew, or Latino and you have a chance to say nothing,” my grandfather told me during “the Talk,” “then play it safe and get the hell out of there!” 

If we’re all going to fix the problem and make significant reforms, let’s start by understanding that social change can be a long, arduous process. Your willingness to oversee those in the criminal justice system as they make arrests, conduct trials and enforce punishment for the officers who killed George Floyd, will be paramount. Doing this paves the way for us to get to the root of the problem where some degree of systemic change is possible. Creating a culture of accountability where people admit wrongdoing, hold each other accountable and address the needs of the victimized breaks the scourge of racism and makes our world a better, safer place.   

Let’s also remember that there are going to be times and situations when both parties are to blame for what happened–and where responsibility needs to be shared. Owning up to escalations and errors in judgement requires honesty, integrity, remorse and humility — traits that most of us expect in law enforcement officers and that they (hopefully) expect in themselves. Becoming our own watchdogs and calling ourselves out on our miscalculations, blunders and biases takes courage. Accountability and reality checks on the part of both police officers, perpetrators of a crime, those being investigated as suspects, surviving family members, leaders and those who have been complicit by their indifference (the “silent majority”) are necessary for true reform to take root.  

Noble “Truth and Reconciliation” admissions of culpability that come from sincere confessions of hindsight like, “I probably should have…” or “In retrospect, I should not have…” invite fair and reasonable reconstructions of what actually happened. This allows us to humbly rise above wasteland of adversarial, self-righteous and endless “he said, she said” wars and sets the stage for working together as Americans to create solutions for achieving our safest possible future. 

However unlikely it may be, it’s time for the Department of Justice to form an Advisory Commission to End Systemic Racism in America. This group of diverse community leaders, led by an attorney general and president capable of building bridges and forging peace, would not only embody the inspiration, vision, resources, and power to identify, create and oversee best practices, new laws, policies and evidence-based exercises that weed out racism and inequality in our communities. Let us also actively promote and model the known antidotes for the racism virus for our children and grandchildren… beginning with kindness, respect, compassion, humility, mercy, and love. 

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