THE BLOG
12/10/2014 08:06 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

I Can't Breathe

The haunting cry, "I CAN'T BREATHE" has echoed around the world and its impact grows daily. Eric Garner's dying words have become an eloquent expression of helplessness and frustration at black men dying at the hands of police who walk free.

This movement clearly now has legs. It has a past -- deep and ugly -- in American history. And it has a future. The presence of many white protesters and elite athletes in the mix makes it stronger. Rallies that continue all across the country in good weather and bad indicate it is not going away soon.

"I CAN'T BREATHE," was Eric Garner's dying indictment of a system that keeps racial minorities in a chokehold of poverty, hopelessness and systematic mistreatment. "Here we go again," many said when the Staten Island grand jury failed to indict, despite the autopsy finding that Eric Garner's death was a homicide. Circumstances may be different, but whether it's Ferguson, New York or Cleveland, the pattern is the same.

Grand juries decisions not to indict police in these deadly incidents brought this issue to the forefront, but those choices are part of a time-honored practice in the United States. Yes, the legal system is flawed but these recent incidents are rooted in our dark past.

The violence needed to keep African Americans in their place under slavery and then legally sanction racial oppression did not evaporate. It just put on a badge. Centuries of discrimination and prejudice brought us to this place. Many Americans still do not understand that, but some willfully ignore it.

We can hear the approval of extreme police violence in the voices of those who blame the victims, those black men and children dying over a few cigarettes, a tax law misdemeanor, playing in public with a toy gun.

For years there has been a known fact of harassment, as in highway stops for "driving while black!" I can promise you there is one in every black family who has fallen victim to these acts of unjustified suspiciousness and disproportionate stopping of motorists.

What's different today is that the larger picture of injustice and mistreatment is coming into focus. For years, the media and the public seemed to see isolated incidents. But the pattern cannot be denied any longer.

"Earlier today, the grand jury declined to return an indictment in this case," Attorney General Eric Holder proclaimed after the New York decision." Now that the local investigation has concluded, I am here to announce that the Justice Department will proceed with a federal civil rights investigation into Mr. Garner's death."

President Obama gave an interview on BET and talked candidly about race in America, including the Brown and Garner cases. The President discussed a long range of race issues. Peaceful protests, he said, remind the public of progress yet to be made.

I believe it's all about race until we, as Americans, are willing to call it what it is our country will have a difficult time moving forward. Would we trust a doctor to treat an illness before giving a reasonable diagnosis? The real question is how do we erase attitudes in society that allow police to shoot first and ask questions later?

Peaceful marches should continue. Laws that make changes should be enacted. But we need a plan for justice. We need Obamacare for the criminal justice system. The plan should start with dialog, across racial lines. The fear and resentment that makes someone dial 911 because the person holding a rubber rifle or plastic gun is black is an illness. Police are infected, too, when they go immediately to deadly force. This sickness can be treated. But first it must be recognized, diagnosed.

Many will say they are tired of talking, for me I am disgusted with how the police are mistreating killing, shooting, beating, interrogating, belittling our black men. If communication is the first step to prevention I say let's do it. If we don't, history will repeat itself.

How many will die before we take action? How many will have to utter the words "I Can't Breathe!"?