I can’t Breathe: Systematic Police Brutality

By Yenny Delgado

George Floyd, a 46 year old African American man, was lynched by a police officer of European descent. His execution was transmitted live on Facebook and has led to a global movement fighting against police brutality and ongoing impacts of policies and laws designed to protect only white people.

George Floyd was handcuffed and lying on the street with his head to one side. The police officer, Derek Chauvin, had his knee on his neck, and two other officers were holding him by the waist and legs for over eight minutes. George Floyd’s final words were, “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe.” “My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Please, please. I can’t breathe.” The police officers continued to hold him until the ambulance arrived to verify his death. This murder comes amid multiple news reports of other African Americans also killed by police in the United States. 

To understand the current situation of what is happening in the United States is necessary to understand the country from a historical perspective, not just from the sanctioned press or Hollywood. The real story of this country is how American society has been built on the grounds of a white supremacist ideology. The murder of George Floyd is part of systematic and institutionalized violence against the African and Native American population based on this same ideology.

This ideology goes back to the arrival of Europeans in America. The colonizers saw the land as a new beginning; the land was fertile, extensive, and opened the possibility of wealth. In the early 1500s, most people living in Europe were poor, landless, and uneducated farmers. The United States represented an opportunity to build a new life. During the colonial period under English rule, new settlers on the mainland had only one problem to face: 
“… the Puritans were not initially sure about the planned extent of the New Canaan and were inclined anyway to see the land beyond as a horrible and desolate desert, full of beasts and wild men.” 

The first to arrive began a process of dehumanizing the original population of America. “Every activity, personal and communal, was irreducibly part of the holy war against Satan and the infidels.” As a result of an exclusive theology, the emphasis was placed on the purity of the European community install in the new continent. In such, the white community was the only one that could determine who was inside or outside. No dark-skinned person could be treated as equal.

The enslavement of people with dark skin, descendants of African and native populations had survived the genocide executed in the early centuries, was regulated under the law and supported by a theological text based on the Old Testament curses accepted and practiced the slavery. Europeans translate these texts for their benefit, and the new earth, the skin color, determines each person’s position in society. In this construction, some were considered children of God, while others were a simple part of the creation that had to be submitted. 

The independence of the United States in 1776 did not change the established slavery and racism regime; it was decided to maintain the separation laws because its theology, culture, and politics were built on the basis of exclusion. After the Civil War and the struggle for the abolition of slavery, African Americans began to live in peripheral areas of the town, where they did not have services. Other communities decide to stay in rural areas, where they had to work as misused paid, without land or possession; they remained the most impoverished population in the country. 

As supremacy theology continued to flourish in all sectors of society, a priesthood soon re-emerged. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in white robes and faces covered with much of the pomp and circumstances of the Christian church. The organization began to serve as executors of white superiority through terrorist violence against African Americans and native communities. American. These extrajudicial killings, fires, rapes, and lynching’s forced beliefs and, because they were done anonymously, they were rarely prosecuted. The KKK hid in the shadows when it was decided to create the local police who publicly adopted the job of safeguarding white communities. 

The role of the Protestant church, which continued to practice Puritanism, especially at the turn of the century, is incredibly revealing and complicit. The church decided not to address the segregation laws, massacres, Lynchings, persecution, and impoverishment experienced by the new African American communities freed from slavery. While most white Protestants remained silent, a group of African American pastors, activists, and theologians rose to denounce discrimination in society. Leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, who wrote in 1958:

“Segregation, both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifiable … I had never been able to accept the fact of having to go to the back of the bus … I could never adapt. separation of schools, hospitals, bathrooms, separated between whites and people of color, partly because the separate was always unequal.”

In his peaceful protest, Dr. King showed resistance by taking to the streets and displaying a living gospel message that said, “There is a creative power that works to break down mountains of evil and level the peaks of injustice. God still works through history”. Although preaches by protest s nonviolent, it suffered firsthand violence; l and torched his house, received threats of death, received criticals white pastors who told him to leave everything in the hands of justice, not preach against Segregation. He continued to denounce Segregation and racism. He was arrested and attacked by the police throughout his ministry until he was finally assassinated in 1968.

In this long history of inequality, four centuries of white supremacy now weigh on the shoulders of young people who continue to experience institutionalized violence in the country. For decades, the economic system has continued to widen the gap between rich and poor, between the privileged and the oppressed. Understanding the historical journey of the United States places in better context the current protest that we see on the ground. The idea of police reform and black lives matter movement is direct from a historical and theological dehumanization due to a white supremacist ideology. The protest is encapsulated very succinctly in the words of activist Tamika Mallory as some people complain about some violence associated with the protest:

Don’t talk to us about looting. You all are the looters. America has looted Black people. America looted the Native Americans when they first came here, so looting is what you do. We learned it from you. We learned violence from you. We learned violence from you. The violence was what we learned from you. So if you want us to do better, then, damn it, you do better.”

The 8 minutes and 46 seconds in which George Floyd said, “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe” are not just George’s words; they are the words and feelings of thousands of people killed for their skin color and institutionalized violence in the country. Young people who are on the street around the country and around the world cannot breathe either under the stains of systematic oppression. The pueblo has decided to go out into the streets and march and protest for a drastic change in policies, and this new generation has no way back.

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Yenny Delgado (she/her/ Ella)  Social psychologist and contextual theologian. She writes about the intersections between politics, faith, and resistance.