I Can't Breathe

The D-Train #35

When I was thirteen, a sixteen-year old black kid named Phillip Pannell was shot in the back and killed by a white police officer as he fled from the playground of my elementary school in my home town. A neighbor had called the cops on Phillip and his friends, and Phillip ran. He was young, and he thought he could outrun the cop. The white officer who chased after him and shot him in the back, Gary Spath, was acquitted on charges of manslaughter. He did not even lose his job. 

I did not know Phil – I was a few years younger than him -- but my older brother was his classmate. They played basketball together occasionally. His murder shook everyone I grew up with in ways we’re all still turning over. 

This is Phillip Pannell in the left column of this graphic. 

After his death, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton came to my home town to lead protest marches. There was what some people termed a “riot” at the high school, and schools closed for days. Police cars were overturned, and windows were smashed. For a little while, my home town in Northern New Jersey became national news. Things did not really settle down for a year, although nothing ever really went back to “normal” again. If you lived in Teaneck in 1990, Phillip is always in the back of your mind each time another black man is murdered by a white cop. It’s happened so many times since Phillip died, but I think about him each time, and in that way the memory of his murder has returned over and over again for the past thirty years. 

Oh, and my elementary school where the cop killed him? I met Rosa Parks there when I was in first grade. Our town was considered a “model community” of racial unity, having been the first town in America to vote to voluntarily desegregate its schools. It was a pretty suburb of New York City, with a diverse community and healthy school budget and sophisticated, progressive residents. The kind of place where Rosa Parks comes to visit elementary school students. The kind of place where we sang Abraham, Martin and John during school assemblies, and the black national anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, during chorus class. 

They still shot Phillip down. None of it mattered at all.

***

I took a few weeks off from writing this newsletter, which was something I did not plan to do. It just happened. Being under lockdown here in New York has hit me hard, I won’t lie. My sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephews in New Jersey all tested positive for COVID-19, although they are all fine now. Several people I know in my small town got sick. A friend lost her mother. I haven’t been grieving over anything personal, but I have felt a sense of mourning, trapped and isolated and alone and overwhelmed. I’ve been scared. I’ve been afraid.  

And parenting alone with no breaks, for days upon days, under constant stress, has tested my stores of patience in so many ways. My current custody schedule has the kids with me for five days on, two days off, then two days on, five days off. I detest this schedule, because it keeps me away from my kids for five days at a time, every other week. But it’s court-ordered, and I have been unsuccessful in petitioning against it. I have been following this schedule since right after my baby’s first birthday, and it has broken my heart over and over again each time I have to hand him over for five days at a time. 

But now that I am working from home, alone with my kids, those five days stretches have been hard in a way that I would have never imagined. When they are home, the days are relentless, from 6:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night, with no break during the day and no tagging out. My eight-year old is angry. He wants to see his friends. He wants me to ride bikes with him and play board games with him and build elaborate Lego creations with him, which I can’t really do while caring for his little brother. My toddler wants to be held all the time. He has tantrums if I take my attention from him and give it to his older brother. There are rare moments when everyone is getting everything that they need from me, usually in short bursts when they meet in common ground on the trampoline or in front of the television. But mostly their needs are so disparate, that they’re both shortchanged and pissed off for most of the day. And me? My needs are almost never met. I exist to meet theirs now – to kiss ouchies, and manage their frustrations, and deliver them snacks, and enforce limits, and teach school, and get everyone bathed and dressed and settled in bed relatively on time. At this point if they’re alive, I consider that enough.

At the end of a five day stretch of solo parenting, I’m expected to jump right into a full work day for the next two days. There is no weekend for me. And I’m trying to pack five days of work into two short days. But I also need to vacuum the rugs and mow the lawn and pay the bills and unclog the drains, and figure out why the dehumidifier isn’t working, and order the groceries, and catch up with friends, and get some exercise, and maybe I just want to take a fucking nap, too. Because when the kids are here? I can’t do any of those things. Then they come home again for another two days, and then they are gone for five full days. As it turns out, those days when they are gone are long in a different way. I’m struggling when they’re gone just as much as I’m struggling when they’re here.

Throughout this, my ex has done his best to make my life as difficult as possible. I don’t want to get into the specifics of anything, but I have been so panicked these past weeks because of him, I have felt like I can’t breathe. 

I can’t breathe.

***

That’s the last thing George Floyd said before that police officer, Derek Chauvin, suffocated him to death in broad daylight. He kneeled on his neck for nearly ten minutes, in full view of bystanders begging him to stop, with three other cops holding him down and standing guard, with video rolling for the world to see. 

In the last moments of his life, George Floyd called out for his mother.

When I send my sons away for five days, it destroys me. But they do come home to me. I don’t worry about them dying from a police officer kneeling on their necks. I don’t worry about them dying from a police officer shooting them in the back.  George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight on the streets of Minneapolis. He wanted his mother.

I can’t breathe, he said.

Not again, I said.  

Love,

Amy Blair

p.s. Reach out to your people. Tell them you love them. Bless the telephone.

And don’t forget to listen to The D-Train, The Playlist, a soundtrack for a shit show.