Out in the Open·Point of View

'Being big and Black makes it hard to breathe in Canada too': Why 'I can't breathe' isn't a foreign phenomenon

Anthony Morgan reflects on his visceral reaction to Eric Garner’s last words “I can’t breathe” and says that being Black in Canada can feel suffocating.

Anthony Morgan reflects on his visceral reaction to Eric Garner’s last words 'I can’t breathe'

A protester holds up his hands and wears a mask with the words "I can't breathe," during a City Hall rally, Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews/The Associated Press)

In an essay for Out In The Open, human rights and civil liberties lawyer Anthony Morgan reflects on how Eric Garner's last words "I can't breathe" changed his work and his advocacy as a Black man living in Canada.

Here is an excerpt from his essay:

From where I sat, Eric Garner's death looked like a lynching. He stood midday on a busy street sidewalk full of cars and occasional passers-by; the officers acted as a mob; and, Garner was soon going to be made into an example for daring to demand that the police respect his humanity.

"I can't breathe" "I can't breathe" "I can't breathe" "I can't breathe" "I can't breathe" "I can't breathe" "I can't breathe" "I can't breathe" "I can't breathe" "I can't breathe"

Then nothing.

Garner is left unconscious on the concrete. The video ends with several officers surrounding Garner, hovering over his limp lifeless body on the Staten sidewalk.

For how long, I don't know, but I just sat there in the dark with Garner's last moments looping my mind, his last words echoing through my consciousness: "I can't breathe" 

These words touched a chord in me that rings back through several centuries, starting with the enslavement of Black people. Garner channelled our centuries-old cry to be left alone to enjoy our human right to freedom. 
Anthony Morgan (Courtesy of Anthony Morgan)

It was a sentiment I too have felt as a Black man under the police's constant eye of suspicion for living while Black. Garner's feeling of being fed up with police interfering with his life was familiar to me. At different moments, I too have felt the exhausting burden of my Black skin being marked as a threat, as inherently criminal. I too have felt that deep desire to just be left alone, the frustration of being accused of something I haven't done, and feeling helpless as my accusers have already judged me guilty until proven innocent.

Like Garner, I happen to be a large, heavy-set Black man. I have felt the size and Blackness of my body be met with fear and seen as a sign of trouble. I know too much about just trying to be, while my body was being seen as a weapon and a danger needing to be monitored, controlled, contained, and if not compliant, slain. From my own experience I know that being big and Black makes it hard to breathe in Canada too.

To some that sounds like an exaggeration. Some might respond: "Toronto is not New York and Canada is not like America when it comes to these things." True, but acknowledging the difference doesn't dismiss the fact that anti-Blackness is borderless.

At the time of Eric Garner's death, America already had its #TrayvonMartin #MichaelBrown and #TamirRice. But Canada had its own hashtag memorials at that time too: Jermaine Carby, Ian Pryce, Frank Anthony Berry, Michael Eligon, Eric Osawe, Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Junior Alexander Mannon. I didn't know then that names like Andrew Loku, Kwasi Skene-Peters, Bony Jean-Pierre, Alex Wetlaufer, Abdirahman Abdi and Pierre Coriolan would soon be added to the list of Black men in Canada. 

So, watching Garner's lynching, I felt the pain and horror of his last words in a visceral way, not as a foreign phenomenon. It was an experience regretfully resonant with Black life in Canada. 

Too routinely, Black bodies are unjustly surveilled, intercepted and snuffed out by police in the Great White North. Not only is anti-Black racism real here, but it is forcefully denied when you try to point it out.  As such, there exists a double burden of anti-Blackness in Canada. This is what I call the suffocating experience of being Black in Canada.

This story originally aired on February 18, 2018. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Last Words".


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