Breathing Again

Breathing Again

On this Holy Saturday, we are sharing a few of the sermons from the last month of Lent, during which we have been focusing on racial justice with our theme, Real Talk in the Wilderness. Pastor Vicki preached the following sermon on March 8, 2015 for Community-Police Relations Sunday after testimonies by 6th precinct commanding officer, Inspector Elisa Cokkinos, and Church of the Village member, Nathan Bunce.


Quoting an essay written by Emeritus Professor of Philosophy

at John Jay College of Criminal Justice

and long-time member of Church of the Village,

Dr. John Kleinig,

just after the death of Eric Garner.


“Chokeholds generally involve

a constriction of the neck’s air passage and/or carotid arteries/jugular veins,

depending on how the arm is placed round the neck…

Technically, some would firmly distinguish ‘chokeholds’ (affecting breathing)

from ‘neck restraints’ (affecting blood flow).

However, in the hurly-burly of an arrest,

what may be intended as one may become the other,

and for practical purposes they should probably be considered together.

The NYPD Patrol Guide, which emphatically (‘NOT’) prohibits chokeholds,

adopts an elastic definition:

‘A chokehold shall include, but is not limited to,

any pressure to the throat or windpipe,

which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air’ (PG 203-11).

In addition – relevant to the Garner case –

it states that ‘whenever it becomes necessary

to take a violent or resisting subject into custody,

responding officers should utilize appropriate tactics

in a coordinated effort to overcome resistance. . . .

The patrol supervisor, if present, should direct and control all activity.

Whenever possible, members should make every effort

to avoid tactics, such as sitting or standing on a subject’s chest,

which may result in chest compression,

thereby reducing the subject’s ability to breathe.’

On the video of Garner’s arrest, he is clearly heard to repeat: ‘I can’t breathe.'”


I can’t breathe.

Sacred and haunting words.

I can’t breathe.

Words that evoke, anger, regret, fear, deep deep grief.

I can’t breathe.


So many have lost their breath

in this #blacklivesmatter moment,

in this public manifestation

of deadly tensions between police and communities of color,

in this repository of discontent

about the racialization of mass incarceration.

So many have lost their breath.

I can’t breathe.

Michael Brown can no longer breathe.

Akai Gurley can no longer breathe.

Tamir Rice can no longer breathe.

Tarika Wilson can no longer breathe.

Officer Wenjian Liu can no longer breathe.

The lifeless, dry bones

of those who have been lost lie without breath

throughout our city and our nation.


Three years ago, a young black man named Derek Williams stopped breathing in Milwaukee.

You can watch his last breath on Youtube

in infrared,

after he writhed, hands cuffed behind his back,

in a squad car,

Writhing and calling for help,

telling the officers,

“I can’t breathe”

for 8 minutes

before breath left his body for the last time.

I learned about Derek Williams’ last breath

on a recent podcast of This American Life,

a public radio show.

I was stunned and disgusted to hear about it.

It just fit into the narrative so many of us have

that police officers are uncaring, unfeeling racists

who have no empathy at all for black and brown lives.

But I’ve had this nagging feeling for a while now

that there might be something more to it than that.

And that’s partly why I asked Inspector Cokkinos to be present with us in the room

as we start our discussion about community-police relations.

She sits here with her officers as someone who has dedicated her life to public service,

who daily gives up some of her safety for ours,

who has taken on the responsibility of the safety and actions of every officer–

every father, mother, daughter, son–

under her command.

I have to believe, with Inspector Cokkinos sitting here in her uniform,

a flesh and blood human being,

I have to believe that there is more to this epidemic of black and brown lives lost

than simply racist, uncaring cops.

And so these days, I am trying to listen,

trying not only to be understood

but to understand.

So today we will not just put our hands up and talk about racist cops.

Today we will worship God with police officers and hear words from their lips.

Because there is a part of social transformation

that requires us to march and teach and agitate,

to unflinchingly press for uncompromising demands.

And there is another part of social transformation

that requires us to actually get out of our bubbles of familiar complaint

and seek to engage with the other as children of God.

And that is why we have invited our New York City police officers to be here with us today.


We are here to try to understand each other.

Because maybe cops see it differently.

In fact that was the title of the This American Life episode: “Cops See It Differently”

And there is this interview in the podcast

with the Milwaukee police chief, Ed Flynn,

and I’m going to read some of it to you because it’s really helpful.

So Chief Flynn is asked about this horrific 8 minute death of Derek Williams,

and he says he understands how the video makes the officers involved

seem totally negligent and without empathy for this man.

But, in the end, he supports the officers,

and I want you to hear–really hear–what he says.

Even if you don’t like his words,

try to understand what he is saying.

Chief Flynn says, “You know, in hindsight, one recognizes

it’s difficult to explain the universe of police officers in crisis situations

and how often an average officer encounters an arrested suspect

who doesn’t want to go to jail and wants to go to the hospital…

I can’t breathe, I have something wrong with me, I have a pain.

And after a while, it becomes just part of the noise of making an arrest

and officers get a little inured to it.”

He goes on later to say,

“Cops start out empathetic or they wouldn’t be doing this in the first place.

You come to a police academy graduation, you talk to officers in training.

They’re dying to get out there and help people.

But as the social net has frayed,

cops are spending enormous amounts of time

with the social problems that society’s taken a walk on,

and night after night after night,

police officers go through the same problems for which there are no solutions.

The people that are police officers are regular people just like you,

and they have faced the same kind of long term stresses on their equilibrium

that anybody who is deployed year after year after year

to Iraq and Afghanistan experiences.

It happens more rapidly in a war zone, obviously,

but the same dynamics are working on America’s police officers every day

on the streets of our cities,

and they do harden themselves.

They have to.”


Milwaukee’s Assistant Chief James Harpole

goes on to talk about how he always worked the night shift

when all the calls are about fights and drunk people and bloody situations,

and it changed the way he saw the neighborhood he was working in.

He started to assume everyone in that neighborhood was trouble, danger, trash.

But then he got switched one day to the afternoon shift,

and he said,

“My first day working second shift was an eye opening experience for me.

I’m driving down the street

in the very same neighborhood I patrolled on third shift,

and I see families, people pushing their babies,

people waving at us as we were driving down the street.

It shocked me. I was in shock.

I had not experienced that.

I realized at that very moment that the area that I was patrolling

had an overwhelming majority of hardworking, outstanding individuals

who wanted to have safe neighborhoods.”


The way these Milwaukee law enforcement talk

reminds me of a concept from Salman Rushdie’s book, Midnight’s Children,

                        called “city eyes”,

“When you have city eyes,” Rushdie says, “you cannot see the invisible people.”


We all get city eyes if we live in the city for long enough.

Is there anyone in here who was asked for money on your way to church this morning?

Is there anyone who walked past someone

sleeping on the street on your way to church this morning?

I won’t ask how many of us have ever asked for money on the way to church

or how many of us have ever slept on the street before coming to church

because some of us in this sanctuary have been or are there too.


But if you are a New Yorker,

you probably get asked for money or pass someone sleeping on the street

at least once a day.

I remember when I first came to the city,

those things really bothered me a lot.

My heart just broke in two,

and my guilt and privilege nerve was struck hard

every time I saw someone suffering so deeply in those ways.

Any of you who moved here from somewhere else?

Can you remember those feelings?

It’s hard to remember

because we have developed city eyes.

All of us, at some point, have found ourselves blind to the so-called “invisible people”.

We have felt taken advantage of too many times

or had doubts about where that money was going too many times

or felt utterly helpless in the face of suffering too many times

And our empathy eyes have scabbed over somewhat,

and we have obtained city eyes.

We sit on the subway with our eyes down

when the woman walks through holding her baby and her hand out.

We keep our eyes on the concrete ahead of us

as to not stare at the body on the ground.


I remember walking into the Duane Reade across the street the other day,

and a man walked in with me,

and he said,

“Did you see that guy? He’s just laying on the ground in front of the store.”

And I remember just being so surprised by what he said.

I just stared at him blankly,

and he gave up on me and walked up to the pharmacist and said,

“Hey, you know there is a guy

laying on the ground outside the building!”

And they gave him the exact same blank look that I did.

We just couldn’t register this guy who had all this foreign empathy

for a person who is always sleeping in that same spot outside that building.

Later that day,

I was thinking,

What if that man sleeping outside the Duane Reade was really in trouble?

What if he was out there dying and none of us did anything?

Would the headlines say,

“Pastor and Health Professionals Do Nothing

as Man Dies Outside Pharmacy”?

But all of our past experiences harden us and blind us

to the suffering and humanity around us.

And some of that is inevitable and maybe even the only way we can stay sane living here,

But we have to recognize that sometimes our city eyes

make the wrong call.

Sometimes the person suffering in front of us isn’t just trying to get booze,

or isn’t just wanting to sleep in peace.

Sometimes we can help and we don’t

because every day we spend in the city,

confronted by suffering we cannot immediately heal,

we get a little bit distorted.

How can it not be the same and even worse for police officers?


You know communities can get city eyes too.

Eric Garner had a kind of city eyes.

You can see on the video that when he was approached by police

he had a visceral reaction.

He did not want to be touched by these people.

Eric Garner was a man who had been arrested 30 times by the police.

He had filed a complaint against an officer for committing

what many would call sexual assault on him

right in the streets of his own community.

And so when officers approached him that day,

you can tell that Eric Garner had some preconceived notions about what they were up to.

Was he right?

That particular day, he was.

But law enforcement is not always out to kill men of color.

I refuse to believe that.

I refuse to believe that our scabbed over, scarred, damaged city eyes

are going to get us out of this mess of racial tension and control.


We need to recognize that we all have some blurred vision

when it comes to seeing each other as we really are.

And we need to push our systems to make accommodations

for a population–civilian and police–that is vision impaired.

In addition to guns and batons and pepper spray and riot gear,

we need to give our police implicit bias training.

Instead of incentivizing arrests and summons and tickets,

we need to reward our officers when they deescalate a situation

so that it never even gets reported.

We need to reward encounters with the public that don’t result from 911 calls,

encounters like speaking to a church

that might not have all happy experiences with police

or just walking around meeting people when they are not in crisis.

These are the kinds of solutions we are talking about today.

We are not excusing or dismissing police officers who commit acts of discrimination

nor are we going light on a system that gives uncorrected visual impairment

free reign over our most vulnerable communities.

No. Today, we are trying to find a way to live together.

We are finding a way to live.

We reworking our social contract with each other

in which some of us agree to put our bodies on the line in dangerous emergencies,

and the rest of us agree to give them the authority they need to keep us safe.

We are here today to live. Together.

To remind ourselves that every life matters.

Cops’ lives matter.

Black lives matter.

Brown lives matter.

Poor lives matter.

Addicted lives matter.

Arrested and incarcerated lives matter.

All lives should have the opportunity to breathe and flourish and grow up in safety.


For those who aren’t a part of our community,

our Lenten theme this year is “Real Talk in the Wilderness,”

and when I was thinking about wilderness images in the Bible,

I immediately thought of this passage in Ezekiel,

when the prophet is whisked by the spirit

into the middle of nowhere to look upon a valley of dry dry bones.

And I think we are there with the prophet today,

and glimpsing together a battlefield

full of casualties,

full of too many bodies, too many bones.

Over there, the bones of Anthony Baez,

here, the bones of Ramarley Graham and Oscar Grant,

over there, Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo’s bones,

and here the still drying bones of Officer Rafael Ramos.

And God is with us here.

And we have a lot of questions here.

But God too has a question.

And God does not ask, Did these bones commit a crime?

God does not ask, Did these bones have their hands up or

Were they running away or running toward?

God does not ask, Did these bones have asthma,

and was that a contributing factor in their death?

God does not ask if the one who took the breath from these bones

was responding to the mayor’s words or the police union president’s words?

No. Those are our questions.

God’s question is this.

God looks out upon this valley full of the drying breathless bones

of God’s beloved children who have been lost

to this violent, racialized Drug War,

these symbols of the hopelessness of our American enterprise,

God looks at the dry dry bones of our multi-racial society,

the dry dry and broken bones of a relationship

between police and communities of color,

God looks at this valley of tragedy and death,

And God asks each of us,

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

Can we live?


And the vision-bearer in this story gives this strange answer.

The vision bearer says, “Lord God, you know.”

Now that can be taken in a few different ways.

Today, I think that vision-bearer is giving voice to what we want to say.

I think she is looking around at this mess we are all in.

This mass incarceration, racial harmony misinterpretation,

these economically entrenched bones

stacked on top of psychologically entrenched bones,

stacked on top of these Jim Crow bones

stacked on top of these slavery bones,

and I think she is saying,

“God, to be really honest, I don’t know if these bones can live.

Can you tell me?

Can you tell us if there is a way forward?”

And God says,

“Prophesy to these breathless bones, and say to them:

O dry bones,

hear the word of the Lord.

Thus says the Lord God to these bones who cannot breathe:

I will cause breath to enter you,

and you shall live.

I will lay sinews on you,

and will cause flesh to come upon you,

and cover you with skin,

and put breath in you,

and you shall live;

and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

That is what we are about here today.

We are not just looking at bones,

examining the causes of their breathlessness,

counting and grieving and wailing at the number of bones without breath

who are left to dry in the sun,

pointing fingers at those who contributed to the bones’ destruction

without examining our role in the problem and the solution,

No, we are here today to find out if these bones can live.

No, we are here today to proclaim,

to prophesy the word of the Lord–

and the word is:

that these bones that once were breathless

SHALL breathe again.

In every breath we take for justice, these bones shall breathe.

In every breath we take for reconciliation and understanding, these bones shall breathe.

In every breath we take to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,

these bones shall breathe.

For the Lord is our God,

and she is a God of life.

Thanks be to God.


Photo credit: Sixth precinct police officers sitting with Church of the Village Clergy on Community-Police Relations Sunday. Photo taken by Katie Reimer.