Editor’s Note: Tammy Duckworth, a democrat, is a Senator from Illinois. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
First, he said “I can’t breathe.”
Then, he called out “mama” for his late mother.
Last Monday, in Minneapolis during broad daylight, George Floyd was slowly, publicly killed by someone whose responsibility was to “protect and serve.” Then-Officer Derek Chauvin, who has since been rightly fired, spent at about three minutes ignoring Floyd’s cries of pain—refusing to move his knee from Floyd’s neck, refusing to let up even as the man under him begged for life and lost consciousness. Then he spent roughly six minutes after Floyd had fallen silent ignoring the growing number of witnesses who begged for him to see the obvious: that the man under his knee was unresponsive, that he was dying.
As a mom, there aren’t words to describe the visceral, gut-wrenching feeling of hearing someone cry out for their mother in a moment of such desperation. George Floyd’s death was unnecessary and heartbreaking. It was a tragedy – but horrifyingly, it was not an anomaly.
From Eric Garner who told us six years ago that he, too, couldn’t breathe, to Tamir Rice who never made it to his thirteenth birthday, the senseless killing of unarmed black Americans at the hands of law enforcement has become an all-too-common occurrence. The horror of the moment, the outrage and sadness and anger that follow have turned into a pattern that too many people have come to believe is normal.
It’s not – and we cannot, must not, let ourselves become numb to the reality in front of us.
George Floyd was someone’s son, who with his dying breath called out for his mother who previously passed away. He had a 6-year-old daughter, who will not only grow up without a father, but knowing that she, too, could face the same danger every day just because of the color of her skin. He was born in a country built on the belief that we’re all created equal – but he died in a country that still has not fully realized that we must all be treated equally as well.
In moments like these, it’s more important than ever to recognize the privilege that many of us have. I’ll never be forced to sit my daughters down and have the same talk with them that black mothers must have with their children, especially their sons, about how exactly to move and talk when interacting with a police officer or about the fundamental racism that mars our society that’ll question their motives and their right to be somewhere just because of the shade of their skin. I know that I’ll never be able to imagine the fear that those parents must face every time their child steps outside. Every time they dare to walk to school or play on the playground or buy some Skittles while black.
But what I do know is that the families who’ve had someone stolen from them deserve justice and accountability. But far too often, that never materializes, because, in part, those tasked with investigating and prosecuting these killings have a clear conflict of interest: local prosecutors rely on the same police departments to win their other cases.
We could begin solving this problem by passing legislation that encourages every state to establish a transparent system where an independent prosecutor reviews police uses of force and prosecutes officers who break the very laws they were entrusted to enforce. I introduced a bill that would do just that more than three years ago – commonsense policy that responsible law enforcement officers would welcome so they could better protect and serve their communities. Yet Sen. Mitch McConnell has refused to bring it to a vote.
This is a time when we need our leaders in Washington to stand up for the ideals that have defined our nation for nearly 244 years now. Americans deserve a President who will unite us – instead, however, President Donald Trump continues to spout the politics of social and racial division that helped get him elected in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, his response to this tragedy is as insidious as it is counterproductive. Just a few weeks ago he cheered the mostly white protesters – some of whom were armed with semi-automatic rifles to intimidate and terrorize elected officials – for storming Michigan’s state capitol to challenge the state’s Covid-19 stay-at-home order. But last week he tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” seemingly threatening violence against protesters in Minnesota who were mourning the death of yet another black man who just wanted to be able to take a breath.
Two protests, just a couple states and a few weeks away from one another, but Trump’s reactions were a world apart. As were those of the responding police officers. In Michigan, white heavily-armed protestors were treated almost deferentially by officers, while across the nation, officers responded with excessive force against more diverse, peaceful crowds protesting Floyd’s death.
We cannot have a system where to safely exercise our First Amendment rights we have to aggressively demonstrate our Second Amendment rights. We cannot sustain a status quo in which someone who is white, armed and angry is treated as less of a threat than a devastated, unarmed person of color. And we cannot let ourselves accept that in the year 2020, black men in this country are still being publicly executed – and over something as small as an alleged counterfeit $20 bill.
For nearly nine minutes last Monday, somebody’s son, somebody’s father, was forced to know he was dying – forced to beg for his life until he couldn’t beg any longer.
George Floyd can’t breathe anymore. It is on those of us lucky enough to still be here today to use every breath we have to fight for the justice he was robbed of on the corner of Chicago Avenue and East 38th Street in Minneapolis last week. If only our President would join us in doing so.