“I Can’t Breathe”
“Don’t worry about it bro, you’ll get it next time.”
It was early July during the summer of 2018. I had finally managed to get out of a toxic relationship that seemed to last forever. I was living with my ex at the time, so it was difficult, but I was slowly starting to feel like myself again. I decided to make a trip down to Brooklyn to see my family and friends. I always felt better when I visited them, and home was not the best place for me to be at this time. I remember one of the first things we did when I pulled up was go to the gym and that is where I met Quam. Now at the time, I was extremely skinny — a month of fasting and the constant stress of living with someone that you are trying to avoid will do that to you — so I was not in the best shape to start lifting what I once could. I remember I was having trouble finishing up my last set and failed miserably. I just remember Quam putting his hand on my shoulder and saying, “Don’t worry bro, you’ll get it next time.”
Throughout that week in Brooklyn, I saw Quam several more times. From chilling in my cousin Wale’s basement, to him inviting me to his home for drinks and a barbecue, time and time again, Quam showed me great kindness and love. I appreciated that, especially coming from the situation I was in living with my ex. During those few days, I was able to really relax and have fun, and he was a big reason why. Eventually, it was time for me to leave and go back to Boston, but I was excited to know that I had started a friendship that could last a lifetime. I was excited for the day our group of friends would come back together and I could see my new friend Quam again, but sadly that day never came.
“I can’t breathe.”
A few weeks after my uncle was shot in Pittsburgh, I got a message from my cousin Wale telling me that Quam had passed away. At the time, he did not have all the details, but we later found out that when he passed, he was in police custody. Quam was going through a rough time and his family was concerned about his mental wellbeing, so they called the police to assist. They only made the situation worse. At least six NYPD officers entered their home. They almost immediately handcuffed Quam with no provocation, and when he, a registered nurse, said that he could not breathe, they ignored his plea. Even the EMTs that were on the scene did nothing to help him as he screamed for help. Quam eventually passed out on the couch. After at least five minutes of the family pleading to the officers to take him to the hospital, his cousin took it upon himself to lift Quam on his shoulders and bring him outside. His cousin placed him on the stretcher, still in handcuffs, until a second ambulance arrived, but it was too late. The paramedics saw that Quam was no longer breathing and for the first time they checked his pulse. Sadly, Quam had already passed. His death was purely due to the NYPD officer’s and EMT personnel’s neglect. Nobody has been fired, reprimanded, or arrested for this incident.
Police departments are historically rooted in racism. During the slavery era, White Americans eventually realized that slave trade was needed to keep the economy running and when African Americans started to outnumber White people in the colonies, organized groups of vigilantes were created to keep them under control. These vigilantes would search slave residences, “protect” communities by patrolling the road, and break up large gatherings. Sound familiar? During the 1800’s, racial profiling was the fundamental principle of policing and their job was to detain, beat up, and arrest people of color in order to maintain racial inequality. These groups of vigilantes and “peacekeepers” eventually become our modern-day police force.
Police use of force is the sixth leading cause of death for young Black men. Black men are three times more likely to be killed by police than White men. In 2019, Black people were 24% of those killed by police despite being only 13% of the population. 99% of killings by police from 2013–2019 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime. Even if officers do face trial, they hardly ever get convicted.
The murder of George Floyd has yet again brought national attention to police brutality and we see another Black man telling officers, “I can’t breathe.” Quam’s story never got national attention, but it happened. It’s a perfect example of how acts of police brutality go on every day without anyone really noticing. There was no video recording of the incident, but a family still lost a loved one, friends still lost a brother, and the world lost a powerful young man that could have made a long-lasting change for the betterment of society. So, what do we do now? Yet again, another Black man is left to lay motionless on the floor. No amount of post and reshares will solve the problem so we need action now.
We need to educate ourselves on the barriers of oppression that exist in this country and how they are designed to put you down, in order to dismantle them. We need to organize into a collective movement because we are stronger together than apart. Finally, act. Arguably the most important step. Advocate for the change and speak against the injustices you see in your family, workplace, and community. Demand change from local and national leaders and make sure that you can not be ignored. Make sure that when it is time to vote for new leaders, that someone is in office that will fight for people of color’s rights, not just the White majority. Lastly, recommend changes in policy so that we do not have to see another viral video of a Black man being shot while jogging, accused of violence while birdwatching, or being murdered by police officers while saying, “I can’t breathe.” We need a body of citizens that watch over the police force. We need more policies like Washington states Initiative 940. We need to make sure that leaders put forth policies that restrict use of deadly force to a last resort, charge people with hate crimes for calling policers officers to harm people of color, and ensure that police departments have protocols when someone says, “I can’t breathe.”
For the White people reading this, be an ally. A true ally that educates themselves to reveal any biases. A true ally that stands up and openly confronts injustices they see whether it be at work, at home, or in the community. Be a true ally that shows up to the table when they are needed the most.
When I see what is currently happening in Minneapolis, I am not surprised. I think if you ask most Black people about the protests, they will not be surprised. We are sick and tired of being devalued day in and day out. We can’t even call the police to assist us without them taking one of our loved ones away from us. Until justice is truly served, we will not stop showing our pain and suffering. No one can save us but ourselves. In the words of Sonny Carson, “No justice. No peace.”
In loving memory of Quam, forever in our hearts.