By Dr. Kaye Whitehead
Pictures of children in pain tend to haunt me. It is the wide-eyed look of either sheer terror or deep-rooted sadness that takes me out. I look at them and see myself during those moments after my father used his belt and his power to remind me that justice is never blind when the strong make the rules and mete out the punishment. It is the eyes, too old for the face, that make me wonder what it says about a country or a parent that treats its children, its future, this way.
I have seen so many pictures of children who were hungry or terrified or in pain, who were marching during the Birmingham Children’s Campaign or trying to survive during Hitler’s reign of terror. And, children whose faces were captured on the edges of the pictures taken after Sandy Hook, after Marjory Stoneman Douglass, after the Baltimore Uprising; children who were comforting their mother at the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. or saluting their father as his coffin slowly rode by. Children should be protected at all costs if we are to have a real shot and getting past the sin that wears us down. And when a society cannot or will not protect its children from racism, from police brutality, from White supremacy then…(my hands are actually shaking as I write this, signs that childhood trauma experienced through a racial and gendered lens will also find a way back into your soul)
It was the testimony of a 9-year-old on day two of the murder trial of Derek Chauvin that broke me. The child said that they watched Chauvin (a White police officer) keep his knee on George Floyd’s neck (a Black man) even after the EMT workers repeatedly asked him to move. If, as the defense attorney stated, Chauvin was doing his job, then the killing of unarmed Black men, women and children is routine. It is expected and is as ordinary as stopping a speeding car or writing a parking ticket. Killing us, like animals in the street, acting as judge, juror, and executioner, is simply part of their job. As I read the child’s testimony, I knew what they saw. I watched the video just once. I saw Mr. Floyd on the ground, struggling and gasping, crying and trying to get up. I heard him scream, “I can’t breathe,” and I thought about Eric Garner, who was choked and killed by former New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo who also screamed out with his dying breath that he could not breathe. Hell, when I watched both of those videos, six years apart, I could not breathe.
As Black people, these are the moments that weather us, that age us, that raise our allostatic racial load. In 1983, Bruce McEwan and Stellar wrote about the allostatic load, which is the general wear and tear on the body shaped by repeated or prolonged chronic stress. So, an increase in stress levels results in an increase in stress on the brain and your health which then causes the body to begin to breakdown. As Black people in America, we are exposed to increased stress levels tied directly to racism, and I believe that we have more than just an allostatic load; we have an allostatic racial load. Our bodies are being weathered and aged because we are Black people living in a racist country. When we say that we cannot breathe, it is more than just trying to get air into our lungs. It is about trying to find spaces where we can be free from the stress that comes from living Blackness in a place where only Whiteness is supposed to exist.
I thought about all of that when I read the testimony of a 9-year-old child talking through 9 minutes and 29 seconds of pure horror.
For the first 4 minutes and 45 seconds: Mr. Floyd struggled, tried to get up, yelled out that he couldn’t breathe and cried out for his mother. Chauvin and his brother officers did not move because when they were doing their job, they did not hear our cries of pain.
For the next 53 seconds: Mr. Floyd had multiple seizures, no words, just his body crying out in pain and Chauvin and his brother officers did not react because when they are doing their job, they do not see our pain.
For the final 3 minutes and 51 seconds: Mr. Floyd was utterly non-responsive, did not move and Chauvin and his brother officers did not bat an eye because, when they are simply doing their job, they cannot comprehend that we are dying from the pain that they are inflicting upon us.
The video of this murder has been viewed over 1.4 billion times, 50 million times in the last few days alone. Racism is killing us. White supremacy is killing us. Whiteness is killing us. Do not look away because in this moment, like the 9-year-old that testified, your truth, your witness, your voice, your testimony is needed.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (email@example.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is an associate professor of African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the Founding Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, and Social Justice and the award-winning host of “Today with Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She recently received the 2021 Amistad Award for her contribution to human rights and social justice. Whitehead lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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