WESTMINSTER WEST — When I was 10 years old - the same age as two of my three children - my mother left me at home alone with my father, who had repeatedly proven that he was a menace to his own children.
Probably upset by my mother's momentary freedom, my father quickly trapped me in a meaningless conflict, and in response to my attempt to get away from him, he grabbed me by the throat and lifted me off the floor, pinning me against some cheap, open shelving where we kept pantry items.
As my feet kicked, trying to gain purchase, canned vegetables and fruit fell, and some number of boxes of pasta, pancake mix, and cereal were shoved into disarray.
I could not breathe one bit. My father's face was red, his eyes were bulging, and the tendons in his neck stood out.
Time passed, and I still couldn't breathe. I had no way of knowing whether he would ever let me breathe again.
Then my father let go.
I don't know if I fell. I remember gasping, more than once. My body was trying to make up for all the oxygen it had needed moments before.
My father's facial expression changed to confusion. He said he didn't know what had happened. I told him, while still breathing heavily, that it was okay.
I remember saying those exact words and then I don't know what I did, where I went, how I went on with my day.
While I find little to celebrate in the fact that I managed to survive this event, there is something worth mentioning here. My father, through all his madness, managed to see me, a helpless child, or he was able to see the consequences of killing me, enough to release me back into life.
Yes, there were other incidents. He never figured out how to provide a safe and sound life for me.
But I was left alive to do my best.
* * *
I now walk through the world as if I am supposed to be among the living. I have had ample opportunity to replace my parents with people who love me better.
And, particularly because I am a white man, I have had access to the world in a way that allowed me to breathe, to move about freely, and to find places to call home.
I have been able to find decent work and drop in and out of college until I developed a vocation that allowed me to lift myself up from an economically impoverished childhood into a life - one not without struggles, but one in which I feel fundamentally stable and safe and in which I have the privilege of keeping my three children relatively safe as well.
* * *
George Floyd, a father himself, is no longer breathing. At the hands of the police, he was handcuffed and suffocated. He is dead.
Police Officer Derek Chauvin did not, like my mentally ill father, come out of his madness just long enough to let George Floyd gasp life back into himself. The other police officers present, Thomas Lane, J.A. Kueng, and Tou Thao, did not take seriously the fact that George Floyd was saying he couldn't breathe, and did nothing to interrupt Derek Chauvin as he killed him.
The four officers involved were armed with multiple weapons, while George Floyd was not. They all had freedom of movement, while George Floyd was handcuffed and pinned to the ground.
George Floyd was a black man.
Eight minutes and 46 seconds is all it took for Derek Chauvin to kill another human being by cutting off his oxygen by bearing down on his throat.
Eight minutes and 46 seconds is a long time to sustain the madness it takes to kill a defenseless person.
Eight minutes and 46 seconds leaves time for doubts about what one is doing, repulsion at the horror happening at one's own hands.
When someone is being suffocated, it is visually and audibly horrifying. There is often begging. If able, the person will fight or flail, trying to get access to air.
Even if the act is prompted by rage or righteousness, there is time and information enough to allow a perpetrator to feel enough empathy or sympathy or decency or fear, to let go.
It is as simple as that. The perpetrator just needs to let go to allow the other person to breathe again.
* * *
I am a mental health counselor and, after 26 years of practice, I think it is fair to say that I am seasoned at my work.
Like all people in my profession, I use a thick book, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (often called the DSM), to diagnose the different mental health or psychological problems that people experience.
Post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression are familiar examples of DSM diagnoses. For some time, I have been troubled by the fact that there is not and has never been any mention in the DSM of racism, as if hating other people because of the color of their skin is not a psychological problem.
Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that the DSM does not address the way we, as white people, have found many ways of systematizing narratives about race so that we maintain an advantage in all areas of society but have completely denied to ourselves that we are doing so.
White people are psychologically insensible to our actions, passive and active, that lead us to continue to have more money and power and comfort and security than people of color.
Our most established medical authorities who focus on psychological pathology have overlooked the need to establish what might be considered unhealthy about this.
* * *
Going back to the killing of George Floyd, it is imperative to reiterate what we already know.
This brutality was not unique. White violence against black men, women, and children is ubiquitous.
I am certain that, despite Derek Chauvin's madness, had George Floyd been a white man, he would be alive right now.
If George Floyd was white, at some point into the eight minutes and 46 seconds of interrupting his breathing, his claim for life at the feet of the officers involved, his crying and pleas to gain breath would have been recognized as worthy.
But maybe even more significant, if George Floyd were a white man, Derek Chauvin's fear of legal and moral retribution would have been a greater consideration.
Instead, the institutional racism that surrounds us and permeates this killing, placed centrally in Derek Chauvin's mind the belief that he could continue to suffocate George Floyd to death and still maintain his own safety and that he would be free from punishment. The other officers, by being impassive and inert, certainly were telling Derek Chauvin this was so.
He understood that George Floyd was without authority or representation within our institutions, whereas he saw himself as having absolute authority and power that society had bestowed upon him, with badge and uniform and salary and gun.
I know what it is like to be choked and to feel I am losing my life by means of suffocation at another person's will. I can tell you it is not small or incidental. It is extremely real.
Knowing this experience personally and yet still able to speak about it, I cannot turn away from George Floyd, who was also real. His experience of not being able to breathe was so real he died from it. He also died from the fact that he was a black man and the fact that Derek Chauvin was white.
* * *
In 2020, white psychotherapy, white government, white courts of law, white school systems, white media, white neighborhoods all continue to function in ways that neglect or harm people of color. White people, who have most or all of the power in these systems, continue to be comfortable with this arrangement or somehow feign powerlessness to change them.
This leaves us complicit in racist continuity that has maintained over hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, segregation, police brutality, and mass incarceration.
Our systems have maintained an unacknowledged, steady, brutal attack on people of color - an attack that benefits most of white America with inordinate shares of property, money, and access to positions of power and decision-making.
Liberal white Americans seem now to be joining in a conversation about systemic racism, but when we organize ourselves into action, we tend to do so in ways that assuage our guilt, leave us feeling that we stand apart from the other white America that is more overtly racist.
Our actions, intended or not, primarily function to restore our own sense of being “good people.” None of this will impede the continuation of systemic violence and psychological abuse by white America against people of color.
American racism cannot be addressed by white liberal action. It requires a more radical approach that is aimed not at using our systems to help people of color, but instead at releasing our systems to people of color.
We can no longer look at our world through the lens that white systems have taught us. In my profession for example, I recognize that the DSM is, by failing to address racism, invalid.
Almost all the information white America promulgates will not help us. I recommend we not look too quickly inside ourselves, either, for the truth.
Instead, look to George Floyd, our newest dead, black man, to teach us about the actuality of the conditions that people of color contend with.
I don't care that my father choked me. If you run into me and want to chat, don't mention it.
I am here, breathing and speaking. George Floyd is not. His death was perpetrated by a white, armed officer who had been taught, by each white American system he has ever participated in, that his primary job would be to protect not American people but white American privilege.
Derek Chauvin is fully culpable for the atrocity he performed, yes, and he was also doing the job our society trained him for. If we look away from this terrible fact, if we don't accept this as real, we will instead have to accept that the next Derek Chauvin, and the next one after him, will similarly do their jobs and more men and women and children of color will be choked, shot, or beaten to death.
And racial trauma will persist, and we as individuals and as a society will continue to decline into more and more illness.