We Can’t Breathe


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June 2, 2020

At a demonstration Friday night in front of the Boston Police Headquarters, I saw a young woman with a mask on which she’d written the words, “I Can’t Breathe.” Around the country, signs and T-shirts are saying, “Silence is Violence,” “White People: Do Something,” and “Stop Killing Us.”

It was time to stop killing our Black and Brown sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands, wives and lovers, grandparents, aunts and uncles 400 years ago. No one in the United States of America should have to fear for their lives—everyday—because of the color of their skin. No parent should have to give “the talk” to their children that every Black and Brown parent knows they must just to try to keep them alive. No virus should have a disproportionate choke hold on Black and Brown people because they have most of the highest-risk jobs, and the least access to healthcare.

Around the country, we’re saying we’re done with this. We were done with this a long, long time ago. And we’re saying we’re done talking about this. It’s time for action.

Breathe. Speak up. You decide what you’re going to stand up for—and how.

Joshua Sparrow, MD

Here are some of the ways we can stand up:

From The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Letter to Congress, June 1, 2020

We call on Congress to adopt the following legislative measures to ensure that police officers live up to their oath to protect and serve:

  1. Require a federal standard that use of force be reserved for only when necessary as a last resort after exhausting reasonable options, and incentivize states to implement this standard; require the use of de-escalation techniques, and the duty to intervene; ban the use of force as a punitive measure or means of retaliation against individuals who only verbally confront officers, or against individuals who pose a danger only to themselves; and require all officers to accurately report all uses of force;
  2. Prohibit all maneuvers that restrict the flow of blood or oxygen to the brain, including neck holds, chokeholds, and similar excessive force, deeming the use of such force a federal civil rights violation;
  3. Prohibit racial profiling, and require robust data collection on police-community encounters and law enforcement activities. Data should capture all demographic categories and be disaggregated;
  4. Eliminate federal programs that provide military equipment to law enforcement;
  5. Prohibit the use of no-knock warrants, especially for drug searches;
  6. Change the 18 U.S.C. Sec. 242 mens rea requirement from willfulness to recklessness, permitting prosecutors to successfully hold law enforcement accountable for the deprivation of civil rights and civil liberties;
  7. Develop a national public database that would cover all police agencies in the United States and its territories, similar to the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training’s National Decertification Index, which would compile the names of officers who have had their licenses revoked due to misconduct, including but not limited to domestic violence, sexual violence, assault and harassment, criminal offense against minors, excessive use of force, violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242; perjury, falsifying a police report or planting and destroying evidence, and deadly physical assault; as well as terminations and complaints against the officers; and
  8. End the qualified immunity doctrine that prevents police from being held legally accountable when they break the law. To overcome the defense of qualified immunity, require that a victim must show that law enforcement violated “clearly established” law by pointing to a case arising in the same context and involving the same conduct.

Now is the time for Congress to pass meaningful police reform legislation. While we appreciate hearings and resolutions, we need comprehensive measures enacted. We need Congress to truly step up to the plate and protect Black communities from the systemic perils of over policing, police brutality, misconduct, and harassment, and end the impunity in which officers operate in taking the lives of Black people.

Read the National Medical Association’s Call for Comprehensive Reform in Response to Police Us of Excessive Force

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 47-year-old black man, was killed by the Minneapolis Police Department.

The National Medical Association (NMA) extends its deepest condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Floyd. The killing of George Floyd is another reminder of the lingering effects of institutional racism in many communities throughout these United States. The conduct of these police officers is reprehensible and requires a full criminal and administrative investigation. The National Medical Association is calling for a national response that includes (but is not limited to):

  1. Comprehensive reforms mandating national uniform implicit bias and anti-racism training for all law enforcement agencies.
  2. Immediate development of a federal office responsible for the review of all fatal police excessive-use-of-force cases occurring in local jurisdictions.
  3. Uniform reporting of all deaths by law enforcement utilizing the US Standard Death Certificate.
  4. The immediate discontinuation of police practices that include life threatening maneuvers like the “choke hold” and the practice of placing weight or force, by any means, on a restrained person’s neck which is particularly vulnerable to injury that can easily result in death as in the case of Freddie Gray and now George Ford. Any occurrence of these unauthorized and potentially life-threatening practices being used by law enforcement should result in immediate dismissal and formal investigation of the officer/officers involved.
  5. All police officers are required to voluntarily report any witnessed unauthorized or excessive use of police force by a fellow officer. An omission of reporting such instances is considered an act of complicity.

The NMA is the largest and oldest national organization representing African American physicians and their patients in the United States. The NMA has long asserted police excessive use of force as a public health issue and has published both a position statement on police excess use of force and a position paper on urban violence in minority communities. The organization is committed to addressing issues of social determinants, structural violence and systemic racism that fosters an environment that leads to the disproportionate policing of communities of color.

The National Medical Association is the collective voice of African American physicians and the leading force for parity and justice in medicine. The NMA is the oldest organization of African American professionals in America representing African American physicians and the patients we serve in the United States and its territories.

Here are some additional resources to help you stand up and take action:

Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—New Era of Public Safety: A Guide to Fair, Safe, and Effective Community Policing
The recommended reforms in this report are intended to create accountability and build better relationships between law enforcement and communities of color.

Equal Justice Initiative—Tragic Death of George Floyd Reveals Continuing Problem of Police Violence
The Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.

Center for Policing Equity—The Science of Justice: Race, Justice, and Police Use of Force
This detailed report delves into police administrative data to show disparities in the use of force.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture—Talking About Race
An online portal to help families, individuals, and communities talk about racism and commit to being antiracist.

Color of Change—Sign a Petition to End Violent Policing Against Black People
Sign this petition calling for the end of police violence against Black people.

Black Futures Lab 
The Black Futures Lab transforms Black communities into active, interdependent, responsive public partners that change the way power operates—at the local, state, and national level.

Movement For Black Lives
The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) is a space for Black organizations across the country to debate and discuss the current political conditions, develop shared assessments of what political interventions were necessary in order to achieve key policy, cultural and political wins, convene organizational leadership in order to debate and co-create a shared movement wide strategy.

National Black Justice Coalition
The National Black Justice Coalition is a civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS. NBJC’s mission is to end racism, homophobia, and LGBTQ/SGL bias and stigma.

NAACP Legal Defense Fund
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. is America’s premier legal organization fighting for racial justice. Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, LDF seeks structural changes to expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice in a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all Americans.


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