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Cheryl Cook: Gasping for breath

Other Voices
Cheryl Cook

I married a cop. When we returned from our honeymoon, he began the 4 to 9 p.m. summer swing shift in a city heated up by the Vietnam War and Black Panther protests. While he slept during the day, I began my teaching career in Berkeley’s first year of integration by bussing.

I had never known a Black person. Now my principal was a Black man and half my students were, too. But, I had never met a bad cop, either. I was the one about to get the education.

From that first gasp of breath at birth, we are destined to leave the warm, comfortable womb of our own racial heritage and venture into an unfamiliar world. Some leap forward and travel the world. Some are more cautious on a circuitous journey. And some are downright stuck behind the backyard fence their whole life, clinging to a cramped space that protects their delusion of supremacy in an unknown world. They still respond to the tone of a racist dog whistle as clear as if it were yesterday’s sharp signal from Daddy to get on home for supper.

In the Cornerstone Speech of 1861, V.P. of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens said that the “negro is not equal to the white man” according to God’s natural order. The Confederacy was founded on the “Great truth” of white supremacy and Black subordination, making the U.S. Constitution fundamentally flawed because it was founded on the principle of human equality.

Alexander Stephens might even have held up a Bible in front of a church to pose for a daguerreotype photo.

Our president calls himself the “law and order president.” But “law” is not using Attorney General Barr as a private attorney to pressure a judge in dropping the conviction of former Security Advisor Mike Flynn, pressuring a federal prosecutor to go easy on Roger Stone, or firing a prosecuting attorney in the Southern District Court of New York in charge of investigations involving Donald Trump and associates.

“Order” is not calling the U.S. military to fight your own citizens during a crisis. Donald Trump used the leverage of our military assistance in order to coerce President Zelensky of Ukraine into opening an investigation against a political rival. He withdrew 10,000 American troops from Germany as soon as Angela Merkel declined his invitation to the G-7 summit, and he used the “unlimited power of the military” to threaten Americans from exercising their constitutional right to peacefully protest.

The path to a Trump totalitarian state was cleared long before the assault on peaceful protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas in Lafayette Park.

It was cleared in the Rose Garden every time reporters were chastised and degraded for questioning authority. It was cleared in the Senate when Republicans refused to hold Trump responsible for the shakedown of a Ukrainian president. It was cleared when he fired truth tellers and whistle blowers. It was cleared every time he fired an Inspector General or snubbed legal subpoenas. That path was cleared each and every time Donald Trump was able to get away with dishonorable, immoral acts.

Americans are gasping for breath in the vacuum of moral leadership. The threat of utilizing our military to confront Americans on American soil was too much for former Trump appointees like General Mattis who described Trump as a “threat to our Constitution” and having caused division in the country since the beginning of his administration. General Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has apologized for accompanying Trump to St. John’s Church.

What I’ve learned since the ’60s is that bad cops make it tough for all cops. Rioters make it bad for peaceful protestors. Both need to rooted out and held lawfully accountable. But murder by police officers we trust to protect lives is the far more heinous crime. Who will we be when we rise from the ashes of this demoralizing, destructive era together?

Citizens are calling for the defunding and redistribution of municipal funds from police to support more community programs in Black neighborhoods. If police cannot handle responding to a minor offense without escalation into violence, perhaps its time for trained community professionals to handle those calls.

We saw NASCAR banning the Confederate flag. We saw the Denver Broncos coaches and players protesting with BLM in the street. We heard singing and praying in the streets. L.A. cops were dancing the Macarena in the street with protestors. Pennsylvania Avenue was repainted with “BLACK LIVES MATTER” leading up to the White House. Then, only three weeks following the death of George Floyd, an Atlanta police officer killed Rayshard Brooks by firing into his back as he fled. The officer had just completed a class in “de-escalation.”

You hold your breath when you pose for an old fashion daguerrotype. We’ve come a long way since the 1860s and the 1960s. We now take a photo with a click of a finger and hold the moment our own hands. That’s progress.

But Black men are still being murdered by our police officers. A man was killed for the crime of allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Another was killed for the crime of sleeping off a drunken stupor in his car. Both resisted because they feared they wouldn’t be treated fairly. Are Black suspects treated fairly? Why do you think they still run?

Breathe deeply for 8 minutes and 43 seconds. In that silence, do you hear the muffled voice of George Floyd? “Please, I can’t breathe, sir.” Do you hear him call out for his mother? Or do you hear the faint low call of a dog whistle?

Cheryl Cook lives in Penn Valley.


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