EDITOR’S NOTE | Bret Bradigan

My Own ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Moment

George Floyd street art

George Floyd street art

I write this on the day that George Floyd was laid to rest, with a country in mourning. I have no answers about what needs to be done; but we obviously need to take a hard look at how to do the hard work of law enforcement without the violence and death.

My brother is a retired cop and probably between a quarter and a third of my cousins are in law enforcement. I know them as a competent and caring professionals, who feel a shepherd’s guiding love for his flock. I’m glad to have them on our side of the thin blue line. But something obviously has gone wrong.

It’s been 35 years now, but I have my own experience of how quickly things can go bad.

The jewel of the University of Colorado campus is its huge quad. Acres of rolling greensward, nearly 400 yards to a side, shouldered with huge elms and ash, linden and dark-trunk locust trees. It’s practically an arboretum.

It’s also a long way to walk across, as I found out one afternoon coming home from my on-campus job at the Career Services office. I was in a hurry because I wanted to get something to eat before returning to campus for an evening class. There was police tape strung all the way around the quad, which meant that I would have to walk an extra half mile out of my way, meaning an extra 10-15 minutes, leaving me little to no time to get something to eat before the next class. I was hungry and in a hurry.

Way up at the other end of the quad, I could see groups of suspiciously beautiful people playing rugby and ultimate Frisbee, being chased with camera operators and boom mikes. They were shooting a television commercial, I guessed, a not-uncommon phenomenon because of the beautiful setting. Since all the activity was at the other end, I thought I could slip stealthily under the tape and get out the other side before anyone even knew I’d done it.

Wrong. I hadn’t seen a group of six cops under the elm tree on the other side of quad. They sure saw me, though. I veered off to avoid them, while they started shouting at me louder and louder. Pretty soon we drew a crowd. I couldn’t believe they were making such a big deal about it. But it seemed that now, with a gathering crowd, they had to make an example out of me. I finally reached the other side of the quad, and thinking I’d show them, I grabbed the police tape and ripped it before walking away. That’s when they came running. There was a flicker of a notion in my mind that I could outrun them, but instead I turned to make a stand.

One officer — I couldn’t tell if they were Boulder city police or campus cops — cracked me across the rib cage with his nightstick while two other officers slammed me to the ground. Another cop sat on my skull while the others handcuffed me. It was a rather large female officer, who I later learned, was the deputy chief of the university police. She had my face smushed into the ground so hard I couldn’t breathe. And she wasn’t moving to allow me to get a breath, either, despite my muffled protests. I did the only thing I could do. I bit her. That got her to move off me so I could take a few heaving breaths. Because of the pulses of adrenaline, I didn’t feel the other officers whaling on me with their boots and batons. I did see two officers had their service revolvers out and pointed at my head. My nose was bloody and my face covered in the mud that nearly suffocated me.

By this time, there must have been at least 60 people gathered around, with more on the way. What the hell was going on? I heard people talking. “The cops are beating the crap out of this guy.” “What’d he do?” “Beats me.” “No, beats him!” Hilarious.

The cops rummaged through my jeans as I lay facedown, detained with several hundred pounds of police office. He found my wallet, scattering the photos and documents everywhere. “Is this a military ID? Where’d you steal that? “ I didn’t have a drivers license at the time; my military ID was it. He confiscated it, shaking his head in disbelief. To be fair, I’d been off active duty for a couple years at that point and my once tight AFM 35-10 haircut had gotten a little rowdy. I hardly looked like a soldier. But technically, since my reserve commitment extended for another four years, I was.

It was a Friday and there was no Saturday court in which to be arraigned, I was held in the jail til Monday mid-morning, when the lot of us prisoners were brought in shackled to each other in our orange jumpsuits. I had a few bruises but felt otherwise in pretty good shape. I mean, for those long moments when they were crushing my head into the mud, I felt like my life was over, draining out in the claustrophobic terror of suffocation. The fact that I was still alive felt worthy of celebration. So what if I had bumps and bruises from the beatdown?

The district attorney’s office was clearly going for the maximum penalty; first degree felony assault, first degree because the assault took place with a “deadly weapon,” which, it turned out, were my teeth, the teeth I used to get across my point that I was suffocating. That could have meant decades in prison with fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

My legal aid attorney, paid with a crumpled $10 bill, the best money I’ve ever spent, explained that because the ruckus drew such a crowd, both the city cops and the campus cops were determined to make an example out of me, that disorder and disrespect would not be tolerated.

We ran a classified ad in the campus paper, “Did anyone witness the police action and arrest on such and such a date?” Dozens of responses flooded in. Nearly all, actually, in fact all, noted that the police had clearly used excessive force, that others before me had crossed over the barrier without being beaten, that the cops were harsh and intimidating, threatening to beat bystanders if they spoke up or got out of line or didn’t quickly disperse.

It wasn’t long before letters to the editor appeared, decrying the police overreaction and subsequent crackdown on campus. I wasn’t the only one who had been beaten recently. There was a wave of abuse cases.

Pretty soon, my legal aid lawyer, earnest, fresh out of law school, was able to convince the DA to reduce to a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace, with a six-month suspended sentence. As long as I kept my nose clean, all charges would vanish. It was a few anxious months to get to that point, and I was happy to have it behind me.

George Floyd wasn’t so lucky. I believe my white privilege is all that stood between me and dying a miserable death, or between me and a long prison sentence, between what was a brief bump on the road of my life, and a pit of despair from which I could never rise.

So I hate that we’ve come to this moment as a culture, where the term “white privilege” divides us. But it’s about time. If it wasn’t for white privilege, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t even be here having this discussion.

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