The need to breathe: The hidden impact of police brutality.

On Monday George Floyd lay on the ground with the knee of a police officer pressed down upon his neck. In pain and fearing for his life, he states “I can’t breathe”. Moments later he lay motionless. Not long after he is pronounced dead.

Although George Floyd was clearly the ultimate victim of this horrendous crime, the issue goes far beyond this one incident. It even goes beyond the problem of black men dying at the hands of police. This atrocity and numerous others like it are not just crimes against individuals. They are crimes against every black man, woman and child in the US.

Because it’s not just a knee in the back of the neck that can lead one to suffocate. It is also suffocating to live a life in fear of this brutality. Fear of jogging, fear of reaching into your pocket, fear of being pulled over in your car, or even the fear of what can happen sitting in the comfort of your own home. Fear of basic things that most of us wouldn’t even think twice about. Things that can and often do lead to death if you’re an African American in the United States.

And so they riot. They riot because they are tired of not being able to breathe unstifled. They are tired of having to prove themselves. To prove that they are not violent. To prove that they are decent. To prove that they are deserving of basic humanity.

They are tired of living in fear. Fear that they will make one wrong move, say one wrong word. Tired of the constant state of alertness they need to sustain. Tired of the fear that one day their sons won’t come home.

They riot because despite raising their voices, despite showing the world the injustice they face, this is the only approach they have left. They riot because despite speaking loudly and convincingly they continue to be unheard. They riot because nothing has changed, the deaths still occur and people still continue to defend the indefensible.

While I may not agree with their actions it is not difficult to understand why they have resorted to this. I understand why, after trying to use the proper channels time and time again, they now feel they have no choice but to take this route.

They have as much right to live a peacefully as any of us, to live a life without the constant worries and fears. They have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. They have the right to not have to worry about the looming threat of harassment and brutality. They have the right of the most basic of human needs: to breathe.

The Danger of Defending Violent Acts

Picture this: A 26-year-old king hits an 18-year-old.  It comes out of nowhere.  The punch is so forceful that the victim is left with a broken jaw and missing teeth.  After the first couple of days where people are critical, the narrative surrounding the transgressor begins to change.  “He is is beside himself,” it is said.  “Good people do bad things.” Some even go further, seemingly showing more sympathy for the culprit. The victim “will be uncomfortable for a week or two and then he’ll be fine”.  In contrast, “the guilt and the shame will live with [the culprit] for the rest of his life”.  Even the father of the victim weighs in,  showing concern for the offender’s welfare amid “this maelstrom which is pretty intense”.

This is precisely what has occurred very publically in Melbourne over the past few days.  The original incident occurred on the football field during an AFL match on Sunday, with West Coast player, Andrew Gaff, striking Fremantle youngster, Andrew Brayshaw. The story has dominated the media since the event and you’d almost have to be living under a rock in Melbourne to be unaware of it.

On the one hand, I admire these comments. On the surface, showing empathy to one who is clearly suffering is to be valued. By defending him they were trying to help alleviate his shame and anguish, exacerbated by the barrage of criticism he faced in the immediate aftermath. I particularly admire Brayshaw’s self-less father who was willing to overlook the wrong done to his son and reach out to a young man in pain. However, given that this episode is not a private matter and played in the public arena, it goes beyond personal views.

The fact is, as some legal experts have implied, if this had occurred anywhere other than the football field, criminal charges would be laid. “I’ve had people go to jail for less,” stated prominent lawyer, Tom Percy.  There would be no media coverage surrounding the culprit’s remorse.  There would be no character references and statements highlighting the importance of separating the act from the person.  There certainly wouldn’t be any words of support from the victim’s father.

It’s not only the double standards that are of concern.  More troubling, is the effect that this saga will have on society at large.  What is the underlying message are we sending the community when sympathies are almost more aligned with the culprit? What are we saying about violence when it is suggested that the violent action should be separated from the person?  And most importantly, how will this impact on the rates of potentially deadly king hits and violence episodes towards women when we emphasise that good people can do bad things?

Andrew Gaff is not merely a man who made a mistake.  Andrew Gaff is a role model and a hero to many.  When prominent individuals defend him after such a violent act, whether they are aware of it or not, they become defenders of all those who commit violent acts.  Maybe he is a good man and maybe the guilt will eat away at him for the rest of his life, but this is much bigger than the apparent suffering of one man.  The defense of Andrew Gaff can potentially contribute to the suffering of countless others, and people need to consider this before making these public statements of support.