I can’t breathe.
As a black man, a new father, a husband, an attorney and a legislator, I have felt unimaginable pain, frustration and heartbreak over the past months and weeks. The recent murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have rocked me to my core.
I can’t breathe because we have seen these videos, heard these stories and witnessed these tragedies far too many times. This pain is not new. It is fresh, but rings of a familiarity that my parents and grandparents dreamt I and many like me would never know.
As I think about where our nation is and where we need to go, I cannot help but think about Charleston and the pain that our community has seen in recent years from the murder of Walter Scott and the ‘Emanuel Nine,’ to the various injustices we see on a daily basis ranging from our public schools to affordable housing.
I can’t breathe because I feel the frustration of my neighbors protesting in the streets of Charleston and across the nation and know that many feel unheard and undervalued. I hear you and I stand with you because I am you.
Despite difficulties for all of us to breathe, I know that at the end of the day, pressure makes diamonds. Despite the pressures we face, I am committed to standing by my community and fighting.
It is often taboo for elected officials to be on the frontlines doing the work typically reserved for activists. On Saturday, I decided to participate in the protests because there should not be a distinction between elected officials and those who we label activists. I am an activist and on Saturday I joined my brothers and sisters demanding change.
As we marched and chanted, I saw people from all walks of life: young, old, black, white and everyone in between. The experience touched me like I have never been touched before. When I left, I went home and I was stunned to see what happened downtown that night and how the violence and vandalism erupted across S.C. and the nation. Despite the anger and frustration, I don’t believe destruction is the path forward. There are bad actors who will use these tense times as an opportunity to destroy our communities. We can’t let them prevail. They want to suck the air out of our movement and make it even harder for us to fight.
Recently many of us have heard the quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that “riots are the voice of the unheard.” I am here to say that over the last few days, people are finally listening. They hear our crying, pain and frustration. I believe the moment is ripe for change. But we have to harness this anger and direct it toward systemic change.
Like many of you, I have been up late thinking about where we go from here. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a few action steps:
First, we must vote and engage in the political process at every level. No, political participation is not a comprehensive solution, but rather an invaluable first step. We especially must focus on local elections and know that, for example, the mayor has the power to select the police chief, city council has the power to install a citizens police review board, and the solicitor and sheriff have the abilities to charge and prosecute bad actors to the fullest extent of the law. We often lose sight of these positions amid national politics, but we must focus our energy at the local level as well.
Second, I encourage you to write down 5-10 things that you would like to see changed that would help bridge the racial divide, hold police accountable, improve the conditions of marginalized people in your community and ultimately push the conversation forward. Bring those things to your elected leaders. These policy changes could include demilitarizing the police force, increasing funds for police body cameras or eradicating South Carolina’s outdated citizen’s arrest law.
Third, we must continue to engage one another. One of the things I have learned over the past few days is that people are willing to talk. We must connect and speak our truths and be willing to listen to others in our community if we are to fully heal.
South Carolina’s state motto, “Dum spiro spero,” “While I breathe I hope,” has weighed on me heavily. George Floyd is not here to dream, fight and improve this country, but we must strive for a brighter tomorrow in his honor.
For those of us who still have breath, we owe it to Mr. Floyd to have hope and remain steadfast in our commitment to justice and equality.
Hope for tomorrow and a strong commitment to reforming systems that perpetuate inequality and injustice will give us the air we need to fight. And win.
Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston, represents District 113 in the S.C. House of Representatives.