I can’t breathe

Local leaders and artists respond to the death of George Floyd and this moment in history

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Patrick Cullie

A 6-year-old girl sits on the shoulders of her father’s friend. As she’s asked, “What did daddy do?” she smiles and responds, “Daddy changed the world.” The little girl is Gianna Floyd, the daughter of George Floyd. And she’s right, her dad is changing the world. 

It’s been more than a week since George Floyd was held down by Minneapolis Police officers, the knee of officer Derek Chauvin glued to the back of his neck for more than eight minutes. Since then a day hasn’t gone by without people gathering in cities around the country and countries around the world to protest not just the death of George Floyd but the continued oppression and brutality targeting communities of color at the hands of law enforcement. Murals of George Floyd with the statement “I can’t breathe” have popped up not just in the U.S. but across Europe and as far away as Idlib, Syria, where the depiction is set to the backdrop of ruins from the years-long civil war. 

Floyd’s death has sparked national outcry but unfortunately his death isn’t the first. It follows months, years, decades and centuries of similar stories. And for every death like Floyd’s there are multitudes of examples where police interactions with people of color are unsavory. Our local communities aren’t immune either. It was just one year ago that a Boulder police officer pulled a gun on a black man picking up trash around his dormitory. And for every story that makes headlines, there are undoubtedly many more that don’t. 

While thousands have gathered in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other organizers, law enforcement response has been varied. In some cases, police officers and chiefs have marched and kneeled with protesters. In other cases, they have been met with tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray. There is no shortage of disturbing videos circulating online of continued use of force and brutality. And there have been instances of rioting and looting as well as the pleas of organizers to remain peaceful. 

It appears this point in history is a watershed moment, a time where Americans on every level — elected leaders and citizens, liberals and conservatives, and most importantly the white population — must reckon with our racist society. In an effort to help continue the conversation, Boulder Weekly reached out to elected officials, artists, faith and community leaders to offer their candid response to the events that have transpired since the death of George Floyd. The following, in no particular order, is what they had to say.

Taylor Simmons

“The tragic death of George Floyd has reminded us of the countless injustices and inequalities people of color face in the United States. Let’s not mistake this intolerable incident for anything other than what it was, murder. As we watch the protests, marches and arguments unfold, it’s clear that the question on everyone’s mind is “Where do we go from here?” As a local elected official and classroom teacher, I can say that this country still has a long road of reparations to pay the African American community and that I’m willing to do my part. Racism is systemic, so we must restructure our systems for progress to be made. As a city, we need to be smart about our budget and must ensure that we invest more into social safety net programs. Having a living wage, access to holistic health services, providing robust educational opportunities and affording stable housing are all investments we can make to create a more equitable world for people of color. 

JD Mangat

In Lafayette, we spend a great deal of time on de-escalation and anti-bias trainings for our police officers. We are also considering purchasing body cameras for the entire team. These are measures that I will fully support. However, at the end of the day, racism will still be still be alive and breathing. As an educator, I hope to teach my students and future children the importance of their right to protest when things seem unfair, how to make systematic changes when their government seems inequitable and how education is always the solution when it seems like there are no answers.” — JD Mangat, Lafayette City Council member

“June 2, 2020 marked the 39th anniversary of the death of Ron Settles, who was murdered by the Signal Hill Police in California. Ronnie was our oldest nephew. 

After 39 years, it remains tragic that by design the legal system continues to not protect the rights of people of color. The Justice System is steadfast in its ability to take the lives of black men and women. How sad that nearly 40 years later, not much has changed and the needle addressing racism has moved so little. Unfortunately, it continues to be baked into systems of power.

Rev. Glenda Strong Robinson and Madelyn Strong Woodley

As people who marched with Dr. King in 1968 for basic civil rights, we are experiencing before our very eyes the return of Jim Crow through many systems, to name a few:  gerrymandering, voter suppression at an all-time high, economic inequality, homelessness, student loan debt being declared unforgivable, inequality in health care, privatized prisons yielding a cradle to prison pipeline, disparities in education. Again, to name a few. By now, we would hope that America would be better than this.” — Madelyn Strong Woodley, Boulder Branch NAACP lifetime member and Rev. Glenda Strong Robinson, Boulder Branch NAACP executive committee member and associate minister, Second Baptist Church, Boulder 

“Many people do not realize that the root of the police system was created to hunt and capture enslaved Africans who ran away and to protect wealthy white people from retribution for this unjust system. The cultural shift required to reform this has not happened yet because the current system is built on the same foundation.

If it was not George Floyd, it would have been someone else. It has already been thousands of someones. Most black people I know live with the idea that they could have been that someone—that straw that breaks the camel’s back. Consider what happened in Central Park with Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper. It could’ve been him. If I were asked what could be done to prevent this from happening again in the future, I would say that it will take people getting educated on the history of this country from the point of view of the oppressed and take an honest inventory about how they benefit from the system as it stands. Meditate on whether they would want to switch places with a Black person or person of color. Watch the videos. Be honest about how they would feel if this was one of their loved ones.

From a Spiritual perspective, I wish that everyone took a knee or laid down and said, “I can’t breathe”. But that is a lot to ask when people from all walks of life are releasing four centuries of pressure. What America has cultivated is hurting everyone. This is pain being expressed with no anesthesia.

We must go into our hearts. As twelve steps suggest, “Do a radical moral inventory.” Without first doing this, we are looking at revisiting this in the future. Any reform that we do needs to be radically inclusive in its inception.”

What Will You Say? (A Poem in Response to George Floyd’s Martyrdom)

Pedro Silva Pedro Silva

What will you say,
If you found out that they got me?
Knee to the neck
Or they shot me?
You knew me;
Now you forgot me?
What will you say?
“I thought he was so different.”?
“He shouldn’t have been on that hit list.”?
“There will be justice.
God is my witness”?
“I swear I’ll never forget this.”?
What would you say,
If I told you this was my family?
When they’re damning them,
Then they damn me.
Saying where we can
And we can’t be.
From the beginning,
I know that they stamped me.
What would you say,
If I told you daily I’m dying?
That this is the world that I’m in.
They want your soul,
For a buy in.
The Truth hurts,
When they’re lying.
What would you say
If George Floyd
Was suddenly me?
It was Pedro under that knee?
Let’s pray one day we don’t see.

— Pedro Silva, associate minister, First Congregational United Church of Christ Boulder

“What is the weight of trading one life for another? The fact that Christian Cooper survived his encounter when the police were called on him in Central Park happened THE SAME DAY George Floyd was murdered during his encounter with the police in Minneapolis is a pristine metaphor for what a person of color (especially those of African descent) feels on a daily basis. Life being a coin toss puppeted for someone else’s entertainment and apathy is a sensation felt too regularly, breeding myriad levels of emotional instability that are usually as unbelieved and disrespected as a black person’s apparent basic right to live. 

Simone Liggins

Understand that the irony of George Floyd’s death deserves to be witnessed: Colin Kaepernick established the kneel as a non-violent way to symbolize protesting police brutality. People have peacefully protested for Amaud Arbery, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, Alton Sterling, Keith Scott, and Philando Castile, and have been repeatedly dismissed as disruptive and unnecessary, spat at as a distraction to convenience, complacency and quasi-aggressively expressed “colorblindness.” This is the result of privileged silence. This is the result of the inability to face the conditioned shadows in order to communicate the needs, desires and overall benefit for humanity as a collective. Chaotic unrest is only truly soothed by genuine, effective justice, and if having a “seat at the table” means chopping it up first to rebuild a fresh one to fairly fit everyone, then so mote it be.” — Simone Liggins, poet

“This is the result of privileged silence. This is the result of the inability to face the conditioned shadows in order to communicate the needs, desires and overall benefit for humanity as a collective.”

Taylor Simmons

“The videos that I’ve seen of the killing of George Floyd are certainly sickening. The tactic used and the death of this man violate the mission, values, policies and training of the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. Neck restraints were done away with decades ago, and our policy clearly dictates that when resistance ceases the application of force must also. Our policy also dictates that when a fellow officer witnesses abuse they must intervene. Abuse of this kind has to be held to a high level of accountability and I was pleased to learn of the swift firings and filing of charges. I’m sure more will come.

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle

Police agencies must do more to build relationships and trust with communities of color. Healthy personal relationships between police leaders and the culture brokers in our communities who represent the disenfranchised are the first steps toward building trust and respect. When I became sheriff I recognized there was an incredible amount of distrust of the police by our largest communities of color who are Hispanic, and often immigrants (especially as the federal government tried to engage local cops in the business of immigration enforcement). So, I began to get to know the leadership of groups like El Comite and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. Leaders in these groups became friends, and trust developed. I am convinced that building relationships will do more than any kind of legislation, training or mandates to help alleviate the tensions in communities (although I recognize all of those things are necessary) and gain mutual trust and respect.” — Joe Pelle, Boulder County Sheriff

“I have a black son.  And I know that one day he will go from being cute, to being a threat. 

When he was 5 getting ready for kindergarten, I had everything ready for him: school supplies, lunch box, new sneakers, words of encouragement, only one thing left: that talk about racism. I dreaded this talk, I didn’t even know where to start.  Racism is ugly and there is no logic or love to it. Its weight is not only restrictively oppressive, it is soul shattering, and it kills the innocent.

I knew if I was too scared to talk about it with him that he would not be properly equipped to protect himself WHEN he was approached by racism at school. “We have to talk about something serious.  What I’m going to tell you won’t really make sense…”

I did wonder if I was doing the right thing by exposing him so young to this ugly truth, but I remind myself that racism has no age restrictions, Tamir Rice was only 12 and playing in the park when he was gunned down by police. 

Katrina Miller

A year later, my son was made fun of at school by a classmate for his curly hair and skin color.  After having talks with the school and the parents of this child, I came to find out that this talk was not learned at home.  Rather, these parents grew up within activism, and were among the group of whites that actively wanted to help and march with us against our oppression.  But they admitted that they made a grave mistake once they started raising their own children; they felt that by not talking about racism to their kids, it would make the injustices just go away.  Instead, it opened the doors for their child to make deeply hurtful comments to my son without understanding the implications, or the history.

I urge all parents to start having the talk about racism with your children now.  By the time they go to school, they need to be aware so that they don’t end up spreading and acting on the type hate that leads to the death of people like Sandra Bland, Eric Gardner, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, etc. Educate them so they may be able to identify injustices and take informed action.  Staying silent feeds the oppression, further marginalizes the issue, and creates a breeding ground for racism.

A year has passed since this incident and the boys are friends that often play together at school.  The other mother told me this was a wake up call for her, and while heartbroken and embarrassed to have to learn this lesson in this way, she is thankful to no longer be complacent in raising a child that hopefully, won’t be a part of the problem. #BLACKLIVESMATTER”  — Katrina Miller, independent filmmaker

“The entire system must be changed. First we have to analyze ourselves and note what racist tendencies we have. Ask ourselves how we can get rid of those tendencies. Change starts from within and grows outward.” — Jesus Salazar, Boulder Community Broker

“We call for justice for George Floyd, and peace and unity in our country. Across the United States, there have been deeply felt expressions of the anguish and outrage at the murder of Mr. Floyd. Until our country fully addresses racial inequalities, we will continue to see racial inequities in our communities and justice systems. And there will be intense expressions of pain when those inequities are laid bare. We must make real progress.   

Our country has weathered a lot of hardship and pain in the last three months. We must now find a path forward. That pathway cannot, however, include violence and destruction that puts the safety of more people and businesses at risk. Our country needs less violence, not more.

Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty

I have the honor of working with outstanding women and men in law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office.  This work matters in the lives of others, including helping people at their worst moments.  In Boulder County, we continue to make progress in improving our justice system — but there is work that remains to be done.  To truly honor George Floyd requires that we do so.

We must use this time and the power of this moment. Law enforcement and the community must work together to make changes that will engender trust and ensure a justice system that is fair and just for all.  Together, we will weather this storm — and our guiding light must be the shared goal of making real progress.”  —Michael Dougherty, Boulder County District Attorney

 “When I first saw the video of George Floyd’s death, I thought to myself, ‘not again.’ How do we dismantle a system of oppression that has existed since our nation’s founding? This tragic murder was entirely preventable. But, we need to deal with the issues relating to systemic racism directly and start defunding the gross militarization of our law enforcement departments.  

Many of these abuses stem from the war on drugs. Lawmakers created enhanced penalties for drugs that were more prevalent in the black community. We had a racist system of redlining when it comes to housing, and we continue to criminalize those that are homeless. 

Groups like El Comite in Longmont have done an admirable job not only because they foster inter-racial dialogue but they also engage in actions that act as a social safety net and hold our government officials accountable. 

State Rep. Jonathan Singer

It’s time we addressed the systemic and financial incentives that create an overly aggressive system and hold police accountable. Minneapolis has had its share of trainings and bodycam buys. That won’t work by itself. We need an independent monitor office similar to the one I set up for child welfare to keep law enforcement accountable. Qualified immunity needs to be a thing of the past.  

We need to end the school-to-prison pipeline. And instead of funding tear gas and weapons of war in our law enforcement, we need real funding for housing, mental health and teachers in every neighborhood especially in black, brown and indigenous communities.” — State Representative Jonathan Singer

“Having grown up in Boulder, I can attest to a multitude of injustices that have occurred. But I believe in the philosophies of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a result we had very impactful, peaceful protests in Boulder.” — Matthew Jansen, Owner of Mateo

“I am not sure what could have been done to prevent the death of George Floyd. Nonetheless, we as a society, must hold police officers accountable for their actions to the fullest extent of the law. The United States is a Republic where the rule of law is our compass. No one is above the law not even the ones who are imbued with the power to enforce it. 

Violence is never the way forward. But I understand that people are hurting and are seeking a collective outlet to grieve the pain of their neighbor, and their friend. They are also grieving the inhumanity of the actions of the officers.  

Junie Joseph

Beyond this tragedy and the protests, we need a revolution of the mind in this country. Working class people (both Whites and Minorities) have to stand together against systemic socio-economic and political oppression. Jailing large population of black people benefit the rich (those who own prisons), not poor blacks or poor whites.

We need more transparency in our police force and greater community engagement and connection. They are supposed to be our allies not our foes. Police officers have to do their part in building trust in the black community. It will not be easy, but the black community must continue to extend its hands the same way it has time and time again over the centuries. The greater American society also has a role to play. If one or two police officers so chose to deviate from the oath bestowed upon him/her by the community, we must act expeditiously to restore balance, honor, and faith in the law enforcement order through sanctions or other means.” — Junie Joseph, Boulder City Council member

“I understand the anger and frustration being expressed across the country. There are no words for this tragedy. What occurred in Minneapolis is contrary to the values that police officers are sworn to uphold. I stand with police leaders and officers across the country in condemning the death of George Floyd. 

Longstanding institutional racism in our country has led to many current-day disparities in education, health, job attainment, income and wealth; housing and healthcare; and public safety, including disproportionate incarceration rates for people of color. The way to have prevented this tragedy and others that could occur in the future is to understand the root cause and work authentically and with community to address it. It’s important for police to listen, acknowledge, learn and become part of the change. I want to contribute to that process. 

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I understand where the frustration and anger are coming from and support protests that are carried out in a peaceful manner. Violence and destruction to communities are counterproductive and do more harm to meaningful and lasting change. Unfortunately, a lot of the communities who are being hardest hit by the pandemic are also being hardest hit by the violence, riots and looting. The messages can get lost in the anger.  

This is a time for action. We need police reform on a national level. On a local level, the Boulder Police Department is committed to fair and equitable policing in partnership with our community.” — Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold