Please, Let Me Breathe

By R.L. Witter

After nearly a year of anxiety, pain, tears, and righteous anger, I stood in my living room in front of the television set. I clutched the remote control and held my breath as I waited to hear the verdict read. As the judge read the first charge followed by the word, “GUILTY,” I yelped. There was a lump in my throat and the tears began to slide down my face. The second charge was read: “GUILTY.” Then the third, “GUILTY.” By then, I was sobbing, gasping for breaths while doubled over. I finally collapsed into the couch, full-on bawling — no BLUBBERING!!

My shoulders heaved and my hands reached upward toward the sky. All I could say was, “Thank you, Lord.” It was as if these were the first breaths I had taken in a year. I realized I had held my breath quite a bit since May 25, 2020. When I initially saw the video of George Floyd’s last breath, I held my breath in shock. Sadly, I wasn’t shocked by what happened; I was shocked we all got to see it.

After seeing the video, I held my breath as protesters took to the streets. I took shallow breaths as people around the world made signs, donned masks, gathered en masse, and marched through streets with fists raised chanting, “No justice, no peace!” I gasped and squealed when I saw a corner near the White House renamed “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”

I gagged when a shriveled, white couple brandished weapons at peaceful protesters in their neighborhood. I nearly hyperventilated when exactly two months to the day of George Floyd’s murder, the Kenosha Shooter killed two people and wounded another at one of the aforementioned protests.

Throughout 2020 I choked on tears for Breonna Taylor; Daniel Prude; Tyree Davis; Rayshard Brooks; Ahmaud Arbery; Brandon Dionte Roberts; Miciah Lee; Mubarak Soulemane; Samuel David Mallard; Kelvin White; Gamel Antonio Brown; Darius Tarver; Joshua James Brown; William Howard Green; Donnie Sanders; Lebarron Ballard; Tommie Dale McGlothen, Jr.; and too many others.

The afternoon of April 20, 2021 was met with great anticipation and climaxed in a moment of suspiration. After holding my breath, gasping, and choking I finally breathed a long, deep sigh of relief. I’m hardly naïve. I know this is but one guilty verdict and other police officers will likely be found not-guilty at some point in the near future. But I am going to celebrate this one time when a Black man slain by a police officer was seen and heard around the world and his death birthed a movement that sought to help the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice. After a six-week trial, George Floyd’s family could finally breathe.

America has stifled and suffocated the lives of Black people since before it was officially America. It felt surreal to fill my lungs with an air of justice. Once I stopped sobbing, I wept. As the weeping subsided, I wiped my eyes and inhaled another deep breath of justice. I found myself holding my breath again. I wanted to savor the rare air of redress. But I can’t hold my breath forever, so I had to exhale. And when I did, I felt the rest of the world exhale, too. For now, at least, I can breathe. And for that, I am grateful.

Only moments after that exhalation of relief, my chest tightened, by breaths again became shallow, and I cried more tears. As we celebrated the verdict, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant breathed her last breath in Columbus, Ohio. The teen called police for help as she was being assaulted by multiple attackers at her own home. Armed with a knife to protect herself, Bryant was shot four times in the back within seconds of police arriving on scene. To add insult to injury, a trio of police officers were recorded a few minutes later at the scene saying, “Blue lives matter.”

Once again, I can’t breathe. We can’t breathe. The air and the life are literally being sucked out of us.