You’re killing me. I can’t breathe.

Many murals will emerge bearing the words, “I can’t breathe.” Maybe one of them will show Charles Jason Toll, Jimmy Mubenga, and Eric Garner, brothers in arms, tender comrades in a war they never declared but which killed them nevertheless. Perhaps another will show Jane Luna, Adrienne Kambana, and Esaw Garner and their combined struggle for justice.

Charles Jason Toll, Jimmy Mubenga, Eric Garner all died, or were killed, by `criminal justice officers.’ In each case, according to witnesses, they repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.” In all three cases, coroners concluded the death was a homicide. In the cases of Charles Jason Toll and Eric Garner, those charged were acquitted. The trial for those involved in the death of Jimmy Mubenga is going on right now.

2010: Charles Jason Toll was 33, diabetic and living with mental illness. One hot August night, in Riverbend Maximum Security, in Tennessee, where Toll was in solitary confinement, guards rushed into his cell, pushed him to the floor, handcuffed and shackled him. When he repeatedly begged, “I can’t breathe”, he was told, “You wanted this.” A little while later, he died. Toll was in prison for a parole violation. Why was he in solitary? Why did no one in charge know his medical history? Part of Charles Jason Toll’s story is the vindictive system in which a slip can send you down a hole from which there is no escape, and for which there is no accountability. Toll’s mother, Jane Luna, is suing Tennessee for having killed, and tortured, her son. Jane Luna didn’t even know her son was arrested until she received notice of his death.

2010: Jimmy Mubenga had fled Angola and gone to England seeking asylum. According to his wife, Adrienne Makenda Kambana, he was on a government hit list, “They killed my father and they threatened to kill Jimmy. They were looking for him. We had no choice but to leave.” On October 12, 2010, having lost his last battle for asylum in the UK, Jimmy Mubenga boarded a plane for Angola. Within 50 minutes on the plane, he was dead.

Witnesses report that the guards, G4S private deportation `escorts’, jumped on Mubenga and throttled him to death.  Escort deportation has become big business. This week, in court, witnesses on the plane testified that they could hear Jimmy Mubenga screaming, “You’re killing me” and “I can’t breathe.” Passenger David Brown was sitting 15 rows from Jimmy Mubenga: “I could hear that things were still happening. I could still hear him saying ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe‘.” Brown said he heard Mubenga scream and, again, cry, “I can’t breathe.” When Brown spoke to the guards, one responded: “He (Mubenga) is OK, once we take off he will be all right. He is on his way home.”

He is on his way home but he is not quite there yet.

In July of this year, Eric Garner repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” as a police officer ignored and held him in an outlawed chokehold. Garner died, speaking those words. When Eric Garner’s widow, Esaw Gardner was asked if she accepted the apology of the man who killed her husband, she replied, “Hell no. The time for remorse for the death of my husband was when he was yelling to breathe.”

This is what happens when prisons become zones of abandonment, including abandonment of any rule of law or sense of humanity, and then the streets become extensions of prison. When almost nobody can breathe – Black men, Latinos, Black women, Latinas, Native men, Native women, working people, youth, those living with mental illness, elders, the poor, the homeless, trans women, trans men, lesbians, gay men, those living with HIV, `heavyset people’, diabetics, asthmatics, women on the streets `at the wrong time’, people with shadows, people without shadows – when almost nobody can breathe, the time for remorse is over. I can’t breathe. You’re killing me.


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My name is Adrienne Kambana. I am the widow of Jimmy Mubenga


Last Tuesday, a woman appeared before judge and jury, and she sobbed: “My name is Adrienne Kambana. I am the widow of Jimmy Mubenga and the mother of our five children. Jimmy Mubenga was a good father… [and] a good husband… He had never been in trouble with the police before. He had never done anything wrong. When he was arrested he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. An argument started and Jimmy got caught up in it. Jimmy was convicted of an offence of causing actual bodily harm and he was sent to prison in March 2006. Although I was not a witness to what happened, I was present at the trial where he was found guilty. He told me, `I was innocent’ and I believed him. This was the first time he had ever been away from the children. By April 2007 he had served his sentence but he was detained under immigration powers. He remained detained until June 2008 when he was granted bail. It was during this time that Blessing was conceived. Jimmy instructed a solicitor and tried to challenge the deportation because he wanted to stay with his family… I was asked by the police to tell them about the phone calls I had with Jimmy on 12 October 2010… He said, “I’ll call you back” and he did not call me back. That was the end of the story.”

That was the end of the story.

The so-called liberal democracies festoon themselves with inquests as if these carnivals of `the rule of law’ equal justice. They don’t.

The current manifestation is “the Jimmy Mubenga inquest,’ taking place now in London. On October 12, 2010, Jimmy Mubenga boarded a plane for Angola, in the custody of G4S guards. Within 50 minutes, Jimmy Mubenga was dead. During those 50 minutes, Mubenga repeatedly asked for help and received none. He begged, he screamed, he called out, “They’re going to kill me.” And they did.

And now we `discover’ that the G4S security guards had racist jokes on their phones. While that is `unfortunate’, mobile phones did not kill Jimmy Mubenga, nor did a few racist guards, be they privately employed or working for the State. Jimmy Mubenga was killed by State policy. He was killed by the very entity that is now `conducting an inquest’ in full view.

While the possibility of arriving at something like the truth of the event of Jimmy Mubenga’s death is important and worthwhile, it does not constitute justice. Jimmy Mubenga is dead. The children can’t stop crying, the widow can’t stop crying. If there were justice, Jimmy Mubenga would be alive.

Only a fundamental structural change – one that never again criminalizes, cages, and executes `the strangers among us’ – would begin to arrive at justice. Jimmy Mubenga’s death, like that of Ashley Smith in Canada and so many others around the so-called `free world’, are part of State policy, not the errant acts of individuals.

Adrienne Kambana concluded her remarks, sobbing: “Jimmy has gone forever. We need justice. Justice will help Jimmy rest in peace. This will prevent the situation from happening again. Justice will give the other passengers on the plane peace of mind about what happened. Justice will protect people in the future because I don’t want anyone to be in my shoes. Justice will help my children not to feel angry about what happened to their father. Justice will help me to live a long and healthy life so that I can take care of our children. I need justice, especially for my daughter who did not get the chance to know her father. We will never forget Jimmy.”

The inquest is expected to continue for eight weeks.


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