Soul’s Breath —
Note: The following piece is my own opinion and does not reflect the opinion of the blog as a whole. I will allow our bloggers to decide whether they agree or not.
When I first saw #Ferguson on Twitter, I thought “Ferguson Ferguson?”
I grew up across Highway 270 in Florissant, a city comparable in economic status, but the mirror opposite in terms of racial demographics: Florissant is 69% White, while Ferguson is 67% Black.
Ferguson and Florissant share a school district because they’re so geographically close in North County. They’re two middle class municipalities around the city of St. Louis.
I’ve always loved my city, but suddenly decades of racial injustice bubbled over in the aftermath of a wholly-preventable tragedy. But it wasn’t the first tragedy of its kind in St. Louis. It’s just the one that captured public attention, largely because of the work of peaceful protesters who have been in the streets since August 9.
I do not believe for one second that the death of Mike Brown was justified at all. From day one, Darren Wilson’s actions were suspicious.
This is the police report he “filled out.” And as Vox explained succinctly, Wilson’s story to the Grand Jury is literally unbelievable. But Josh Marshall’s walkthrough of the testimony is by far the most thorough examination of what transpired.
Most tellingly, 16 of 18 witnesses say that Brown’s hands were raised when Wilson shot him.
Now, I’m not interested in arguing the facts of the case because I know there are people who are just as convinced that Mike Brown deserved to be shot. Nothing positive is going to come of arguing that in the comments. I get that there’s ambiguity in the Brown case that allows people to fill in the voids with all kinds of justifiable qualifiers, but there is none of that ambiguity in the death of Eric Garner.
Like Mike Brown, Eric Garner was a big guy. In both cases, their size was an issue. In the Ferguson case, Wilson emphasized Brown’s size as a reason he feared for his life, despite the two being fairly comparable in size:
“When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” said the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Wilson of the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Brown. “Hulk Hogan, that’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.”
Wilson’s account is just the modern equivalent of the “black brute” myth. To be a large Black man is to be seen as a physical threat to some. Garner happened to have that same body type.
But since there’s footage of Garner’s death, there’s no doubt that he wasn’t a posing an immediate threat. There’s no way to justify a summary execution as the result of a scary Black man that had to be stopped. Garner’s murder was so egregious that Fox darlings Bill O’Reilly, Charles Krauthammer and Michael Steele have expressed disappointment with the Grand Jury’s decision.
And yet, this hasn’t stopped some people from trying to pin this wholly-preventable tragedy on its victim. The most disgusting example of this comes from Congressional Cretin Peter King:
“The police had no reason to know he was in serious condition,” King said on CNN. “You had a 350-pound person who was resisting arrest. The police were trying to bring him down as quickly as possible. If he had not had asthma and a heart condition and was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died.”
According to the autopsy, Garner died from “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” The autopsy also said contributors to his death included acute and chronic bronchial asthma, obesity and hypertensive cardiovascular disease.
But as renowned medical examiner Michael Baden explained, “Compression of the neck that prevents breathing for example trumps everything else as a cause of death.”
The reason Garner died is that Officer Daniel Pantaleo used a chokehold that the NYPD had banned in 1993 because as Chief John F. Timoney said, “We are in the business of protecting life, not taking it.”
Lately, the Health at Every Size® (HAES) has been emphasizing the social determinants of health (SDH) as an important factor to consider in discussions of health and wellness, most notably in the recent book Body Politic.
As I said at the time, centering SDH in discussions of health is vital to HAES and our understanding of how health is affected. And these incidents of police brutality against Black people show us why it’s important.
As a fat White man, my biggest “fear” is being feminized for my size. I’m seen as soft and weak and non-manly. That’s it. That’s how stigmatization for fat White men plays out.
For fat Black men who are the same size as me, they are seen as brutes and monsters and something to be feared. This is bad enough in our culture, but add to that the problem of police brutality and you get a deadly combination.
And not only is it the fear of being killed by an overzealous cop that affects the health of Black men, it’s the entire climate of fear that hangs over the Black community like a storm cloud. Every day, Black mothers and fathers have to live with the kind of gut-wrenching fear that their teenage son or daughter may become a victim of police violence.
Take the case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old child who was playing with Airsoft pistol at the park when police rolled up and shot him in the stomach before the police car even stopped.
When I was Tamir’s age, I played with toy guns on more than one occasion. And yes, if I could make that gun look less like a toy by removing the orange tip, I would. Not because I was wanting to instill fear in others, but because it looked cooler.
People are already trying to cast the blame on Tamir’s family by dredging up records that his father had a record of domestic violence. But let’s face it, if Tamir was a White kid, police would not have shot him no questions asked. At no point, did my parents ever had to fear that me playing cops and robbers would end up with me being killed by the real cops.
In my interview with Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, she explained how chronic stress and stigma can cause the same health problems that are typically blamed on weight. She also said that most of the research on weight stigma is founded on the long-standing history of racial stigma in this country.
For example, there’s this study on how stigma is a fundamental cause of population health inequalities. We already know that health outcomes are generally worse in Black neighborhoods, and people blame that on Black communities. But the fact is, our country has never stopped oppressing Black Americans — we’ve simply shifted tactics.
Yes, those tactics have been less overtly oppressive, going from racism to Jim Crow to redlining and underfunded schools in Black neighborhoods. But all that means is we have a kinder, gentler oppression attempting to prevent Black Americans from achieving the so-called American Dream.
When a disgraced police officer shoots a 12-year-old child because he might have a real gun and that cop can later tell a Grand Jury he feared for his life and get away with it, that is nothing more than a modern-day lynching.
Police brutality and racial stigma is a HAES issue. It must be. As HAES activists, we cannot stand idly by and allow the health and well-being of Black Americans to be robbed by a system of injustice and disparity.
Yes, personal health issues are still important and we can each take small steps to improving our own personal health, but we must also be vigilant of the ways in which social injustice and economic inequality has ravaged the health of entire communities.
We cannot allow the police to choke a man to death, then blame it on his size. We cannot allow the police to raise the specter of the “black brute” as justification for shooting him when his hands are raised. We cannot allow another parent to mourn the loss of their child because some trigger-happy coward fears the color of his skin.
Ferguson has transformed how I see my city, my childhood home. It has awakened many of us to an inhumane reality that has been just out of sight for the privileged for decades. We must continue to fight for justice and equality, humanity and respect, or we will be complicit each subsequent murder and non-indictment that comes to pass.
We must all do what we can to help our Black brothers and sisters breathe as easy as the rest of us do every day and take for granted. If we don’t, then we must mourn the death of Justice itself.