During Thursday’s Congressional Black Caucus panel discussion addressing reshaping the criminal justice system and the role activists play in the movement to address issues affecting African-Americans, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) spoke about the oppression Blacks have faced throughout the history of this nation.
Since the first Africans set foot on American soil in 1619, Blacks have faced an insurmountable level of oppression despite the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, reconstruction after the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. African-Americans have “not been able to breathe.”
Jeffries drew a direct parallel between the plight of Africans in America with the final words spoken by Eric Garner, who died after being placed in an illegal chokehold by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Congressman Jeffries said, “I’ve often reflected on the fact that those words, I can’t breathe, if you would just change the first one – we can’t breathe – in many ways represents the struggle of African-Americans in this country.”
“From the very beginning at the founding of the republic, we had to deal with chattel slavery,” said Jeffries.
The Congressman from New York called the enslavement of Africans “one of the worst crimes perpetrated against humanity.”
Jeffries said, “Chattel slavery lasted until the Civil War and then there was a brief moment of enlightenment around the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, and the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause, and of course, the 15th Amendment, which dealt with the right to vote.”
He said the period of reconstruction was “quickly abandoned” and replaced with Jim Crow and the Black codes. These oppressive institutions allowed for the “systematic lynching of African-Americans all designed to suppress our capacity.”
After the Civil Rights Movement and assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Nixon was elected. Three years into Nixon’s term, he launched the war on drugs. Rep. Jeffries said, “At that time, 350,000 people were incarcerated in America; today there are 2.2 million.”
“We’ve gone from chattel slavery into the Jim Crow era and in a few years after that was ended legislatively, the period of mass incarceration began,” said Jeffries.
“And so Eric Garner says I can’t breathe, but the African-American experience has been we’ve been largely unable to breathe free of systematic, organized, consistent oppression.”
While concluding his remarks, Congressman Jeffries said, “That’s why the struggle has been so necessary and why at the end of the day we’ve got to do all that we can, working in part with the activists on the outside and the legislators on the inside to give the African-American community and all others across this country the room to really experience the American Dream and be given some room to breathe.”