Three Words. Over 70 Cases. The Tragic History of ‘I Can’t Breathe.’
The deaths of Eric Garner in New York and George Floyd in Minnesota created national outrage over the use of deadly police restraints. There were many others you didn’t hear about.
I can’t breathe,” George Floyd pleaded in May, appealing to the Minneapolis police officer who responded to reports of a phony $20 bill and planted a knee in the back of his neck until his life had slipped away.
Mr. Floyd’s dying words have prompted a national outcry over law enforcement’s deadly toll on African-American people, and they have united much of the country in a sense of outrage that a police officer would not heed a man’s appeal for something as basic as air.
Please read below as these are not the first times that we have dealt with this. Do the research understand the history of injustice before you say they should listen and comply.
‘You want to kill me?’
While there have been dozens of “I can’t breathe” deaths over the past decade, the emergence of body cameras and surveillance footage has eliminated the invisibility that once shrouded many of these deaths.
Videos from Mr. Garner’s death galvanized changes in neck restraint policies around the country, but problematic techniques for restraining people did not go away. In the six years since then, more than 40 people have died after warning, “I can’t breathe.”
Less than three months after Mr. Garner died, police officers went out to a tidy stucco home near Glendale, Ariz., to investigate a report of a couple arguing.
The officers found Balantine Mbegbu seated in a leather chair with his dinner. Both Mr. Mbegbu and his wife assured them that no argument had taken place. According to police reports, Mr. Mbegbu became indignant when they refused to leave.
“Why are you guys here?” he said, his voice rising. “You want to kill me?”
When he tried to stand, the officers slammed him to the floor, punched him in the head and shot him with a Taser. With Mr. Mbegbu on his stomach, officers put knees on his back and neck.
As his wife, Ngozi Mbegbu, watched them pile on top of her husband, she heard him say, “I can’t breathe. I’m dying,” according to a sworn statement she made. Records show he vomited, began foaming at the mouth, stopped breathing and was pronounced dead.
The county prosecutor’s office determined that “the officers did not commit any act that warrants criminal prosecution.”
Cases in which detainees protested that they could not breathe, before dying, continued to occur. Their words could be heard on audio or video recordings, or were otherwise documented in official witness statements or reports.
In 2015, Calvon Reid died in Coconut Creek, Fla., after officers fired 10 shots at him with a Taser.
In 2016, Fermin Vincent Valenzuela was asphyxiated after police officers in Anaheim, Calif., put him in a neck hold while trying to arrest him. His family won a $13 million jury verdict.
In 2017, Hector Arreola died in Columbus, Ga., after officers forced him to the ground, cuffed his hands behind him and leaned on his back, with one officer brushing off his complaints: “He’s fine,” he said.
In 2018, Cristobal Solano was arrested in Tustin, Calif., and then died after at least seven deputies worked together to subdue him on the floor of a holding cell, some with their knees on his back.
In 2019, Vicente Villela died in an Albuquerque jail after telling guards who were holding him down with their knees that he could not breathe. “Right, because they’re having to hold you down,” one of the guards said.
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