I Can’t Breathe Until Everyone Can Breathe

The late Maya Angelou said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” When it comes to injustices, we’re all part of the problem—and the solution.
A Milwaukee Black Lives Matter march. Photo by Light Brigade.

A Milwaukee Black Lives Matter march. Photo by Light Brigade.

On the night we learned that Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who killed Eric Garner, wouldn’t even face trial, I was sitting on my bed trying to be rational about the decision when my friend texted me:

“It is because he refused to be dehumanized by complying with their stop and frisk that he died.”

And it hit me. I broke down.

I broke down because I knew that it would be so easy for me to meet the same fate. My mother taught me to have pride and stand up for my humanity. Yet my mother also taught me how to survive. And somehow those two—survival and my humanity—aren't always compatible.

Needing some air, I decided to take a walk. Half a block from my door, I ended up walking past two policemen on the corner in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The latent Huey Newton side of me started bubbling up, and rage filled my body.

All I could think of at the moment was: This can’t be life.

The second thing that came to mind was: It’s time to stop pulling punches.

All my life, I’ve skirted around the reasoning for what I do, both personally and professionally. I've made my story palatable for certain audiences that may be uncomfortable with my truth.

I’d tell people that I changed my life, ditched my Greenwich Village apartment and quit my high-paying finance job to start SWICH, which helps New Yorkers support restaurants that are tasty, healthy, and sustainable. I did it because another friend, who owned a sandwich shop (not coincidentally called S’WICH), closed up shop because customers didn’t want to pay $10 for a sandwich with top-quality ingredients served by a person who was being paid fairly...

...Or maybe it was because I, as an investor who used other people’s money to invest in urban small businesses like my friend’s, didn’t use my own money to do the same. In fact, most of my “local spending” was at my neighborhood bars.

It would be understandable to come to the conclusion that I was just some foodie who felt hypocritical because I didn’t eat artisanal sandwiches.

That’s my fault. It’s time set the record straight. You might not like what I’m about to say, because it's challenging. It's challenging for all of us. But we’re on the same side.

The real truth behind why I am so passionate that we need to put our money where our mouths are?

It’s because of injustices like Eric Garner’s death. It’s because of situations like Ferguson.

It’s because of John Crawford III (who was killed by police inside an Ohio Wal-Mart); Jordan Baker (who was killed by an off-duty cop in a Houston mall parking lot last January; this week, a grand jury cleared the officer); Dontre Hamilton (who was mentally ill and fatally shot by a cop in Milwaukee); Rumain Brisbon (who was unarmed when Phoenix police killed him earlier this month), Tamir Rice (who, at 12 years old, was killed by Cleveland police last month); and numerous others like them who have had their lives cut short for reasons that are nebulous at best and nefarious at worst.

It’s because I, like many, talked a lot about the injustices of the world, often settling in the comfortable place of finding someone else to blame. And I have come to realize that I am both part of the problem, and, as a result, part of the solution.

It’s because I don’t want blood on my hands.

It’s because I want to join with others to find a way to put an end to all of this (and in case it wasn’t obvious, shooting policeman is not the answer—though neither is silence).

It’s because, as Fannie Lou Hamer said: “Nobody's free until everybody's free.”

Nobody's free

Now the uncomfortable part.

Believe it or not, many of us (most of us?) are complicit in creating the conditions for these injustices to take place. We depend on a system that requires poor people to be poor, both domestically and globally, so that we can get what we want cheap. It’s time to face facts. That’s how our respective lifestyles are possible. And the only way to maintain that lifestyle is by keeping these poor folks out of sight, out of mind, and in their lane so that they don’t threaten those of us who are not poor—our bodies, our property, our consciences.

We are in the exploitation business...and business is booming.

Is it any surprise, then, given how dependent we are on this structure, that the Eric Garners and Michael Browns and, by residual effect, myself, continue to suffer for it?

The police, like the military, are, in many ways, just carrying out our marching orders. Racism is an element that adds a lethal injection to a situation that is already unconscionable.

That doesn’t let police off the hook for their behavior. To the contrary, to fulfill the promise of #ThisStopsToday, to show that #BlackLivesMatter, we all need to stop treating people like shit and start treating people better...like humans.

The first step, as any addict will tell you, is acknowledging we’ve got a problem. What’s our problem? We—you and me—are in the exploitation business...and business is booming.

1.  the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work.

We can start acknowledging our problem by realizing that there is always an actual human being on the other side of our actions; that no matter how good a person we think we are, we all make choices daily that result in the exploitation of others.

That hamburger served to you by someone making sub-minimum wage? Exploitative. That mutual fund you invest in that has holdings of companies that use prison labor? Exploitative. That marketing job you have peddling unhealthy products? Exploitative. This MacBook Air I’m typing this on? Exploitative.

But those imperfections don’t, in themselves, make you or me bad people.

Perfectly navigating this world while avoiding exploiting others is impossible. Yet that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and do nothing. Working toward "better"—reducing harm and maximizing positivity—is possible. But it requires seeking out the knowledge, not sweeping information under the rug and pretending like it doesn’t exist so we can feel better about ourselves and avoid thinking about our choices and changing our actions.

What does better mean?

I can’t help shake the feeling that what we need is a Montgomery Bus Boycott, updated for the 21st century.

I don’t fool myself. Projects like SWICH alone aren’t going to change much. Food? Spending? NYC? I can understand why you might find that underwhelming.

But that was never really my goal when I started my personal and professional journey to do better. While it is rewarding to help people choose healthier, more sustainable places to eat, that is just a step toward a larger purpose of helping influence our collective consciousness, of how we think about ourselves and our roles in the communities we are a part of; to be increasingly cognizant of our individual impact on others with the choices we make; to shift those choices from those that negatively impact others to those that positively impact all of us.

Basically...to stop exploiting people in every way, as best we can. That is better.

We don’t have a lack of solutions. We have a lack of will. If our grandmas, fathers, aunts, and uncles could do what they did in the 1960s, surely we can refrain from feeding the exploitative beast that ends up biting us in the ass in the end anyways. Surely we can do better than those who we are protesting against.

Until that mindset changes, there will always be people, like Eric Garner—like me—getting their asses kicked. The only question is who...and what “justification” will be used to dehumanize them/us.

A better solution

Our goal should never be to just not be the ones getting our asses kicked (or worse, to be the ones administering the ass-kicking). It should be to stop the ass-kicking altogether.

MLK, Frantz Fanon, Ayi Kwei Armah, Angela Davis, Gandhi, Mandela, Audre Lorde, the Dalai Lama: They all envision(ed) a world that was fundamentally different than ours is today; where a better world doesn’t mean just gaining access and assuming power to repeat the same mistakes as those who previously held power over you. Instead it means rejecting the desire to exploit others in order to build something that works for everyone.

This is as much practical as it is dreamy. Pursuing universal justice for all undoubtedly raises the likelihood of gaining justice for Black people in particular.

Further, if you were with tens of thousands of other people at the Millions March New York City demonstration on December 13, I’m sure you heard calls to “Shut It Down,” meaning make life unworkable in order to achieve justice. There are lots of ways of making that a reality. But I can’t help shake the feeling that what we need is a Montgomery Bus Boycott (which, by the way, lasted 381 days), updated for the 21st century. What better way to “Shut It Down” than to refrain, en masse, from feeding the very system we’re protesting against?

Contrary to what some may believe, now is not the time to stop calling for justice because we’ve gone too far. Now is the time to turn it up because we haven’t gone far enough.  We can vote for a better world, free of exploitation, with our money as well as our marches, and build strength in our communities. Every day. In the process, we serve as an example of what is possible and even gain leverage to force people to treat us better, instead of asking from a place of “weakness” where we are dependent on the very people and embedded in the very system that treat us unfairly.

I can almost guarantee you that this new just world is much better than the current one we’re struggling with. Not just for those who are being oppressed, but for everyone, you included. It’s better than a flat screen or an expensive handbag. It’s better than a trip to an all-inclusive resort or a cronut. Can’t buy me love, right?

The late Maya Angelou said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

The easy interpretation is a passive one—that we can wait around to be randomly enlightened before we do better. But the way I read this is that we must be doggedly proactive to learn more about what we do and what impact we have—and thus “know better.”

The great thing about accepting our role in contributing to what we are fighting against, is that we regain our agency, our power to bring about change. Even more encouraging is that, unlike politics, it doesn’t even take a majority of us to do so. We, who care, can join in building a new world with liberty and justice for all.

Just know that whatever, and in fact everything, you do is an act in favor of justice...or not. You certainly don’t have to join me in my journey, though I’d love the company. But regardless, if you care, burying your head in the sand to avoid looking in the mirror ain’t gonna cut it anymore.

This is how we create a better world—together.