I STILL CAN’T BREATHE: A Short Narrative by Charles Dumas (South Africa, 2002/03)


A Short Narrative by Charles Dumas

Fulbright Fellow 2002-03 South Africa

A couple of years ago I asked a friend of mine what a Black man should do when he is stopped by a policeman. My friend, a highly ranked police officer, said you should do whatever the officer tells you to do. 

“What if the officer is wrong?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, “avoid the conflict, just do what he says. The officer should control the circumstances.  You can sort out the ethics later in court.”  It seemed like sound advice. Except, for George Floyd there can be ‘no later in court.’ He is dead. He was restrained, handcuffed and choked to death by a cop’s knee on his throat. Three other guardians of the public order held George down while he died. I wonder what advice my friend would give after that.

We are all wondering.

Many people identify with George Floyd, particularly black and concerned white folks.

“They have their knees on all our necks, they are choking us to death.” 

I can’t breathe…

Not really. We have choices. George was immobilized, cuffed, face down on the ground. He had no choice. He couldn’t breathe. All he could do was beg to be allowed to breathe; he asked for his mother. I believe we are more like those other officers on the scene, the accessories to the murder. Or perhaps we are the bystanders, witnesses to the crime, asking the cops to show leniency while taking cell phone videos. Still, the true transgression was not just the lynching but rather our compliance with the structure of white supremacy which scaffolded the atrocity. Stifled by racism, breathing is difficult.          

Every African-American man, my age or older, knows the story of Emmett Till. In 1955 Emmett and I were both children on the Southside of Chicago. As was the custom, during the Summer, he visited his Uncle down in Mississippi. He was kidnapped, tortured and lynched by white men. They accused him of wolf whistling at a white woman. Jet Magazine published a picture of Emmett’s mutilated body. Thousands of us cascaded by Rayner’s Funeral Home to view his body. The desecrated remains I saw in that glass walled casket stayed in my nightmares long into adulthood. His mother kept the casket open so the world “could see what they did to my son.” The horror did not end there.

Because of the publicity generated by the murder there was a trial. A jury of twelve white men heard the testimony of eye witnesses. They took a little over an hour to acquit their fellow bigots, the later self-admitted murderers. One juror said it wouldn’t have taken that long except “they stopped for a pop.” It did not end there. 

Instead of creating the atmosphere of fear as intended, that lynching became a last straw after so many burdens of oppression. It became part of the conscious narrative of the modern civil rights movement. Rosa Parks said she remembered Emmett when she refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus later that year. Upon seeing a picture of the mutilated Emmett, a young incensed Muhammed Ali was prompted to vandalize a local train yard to vent his frustration. My friend and leader of Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer, told me that she often used Emmett’s memory to inspire her work in the Movement when things got particularly tough. I know I did. It helped deal with the fears.

What did we do with the fears? We used them to generate the energy which led to the marches, the rallies, the voter registration campaigns, the early morning organizing.  We used the hateful act of our brother’s murder to create a love, a love for each other as mutually oppressed people, a love for the movement which created a possibility of hope for the future.

We used the love to breathe and the breath to sing.

The most hopeful story that I have heard in this most catastrophic of times comes from the sheriff of Flint Michigan.  While policing, he was trying to restrain a group of protestors who were marching against the lynching of George Floyd and demanding the arrest of his killers, he came to a stumbling block. He said, he wasn’t sure what to do next. So, he chose to do the inconceivable. He took a breath. He took off his helmet, put down his riot control club, and joined the protestors. He manifested our next step. We take off our helmets so that we are revealed and we can see others as human beings. We put down our clubs so that we can come together in peace and love. We breathe. Then and only then, naked and vulnerable, we can join in the march towards justice!

Charles Dumas is a lifetime political activist, a professor Emeritus from Penn State University, and was the Democratic Party’s nominee for the US Congress in 2012. He lives with his partner and wife of 50 years in State College, PA. Dumas was a Fulbrighter in South Africa in 2002/03.

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