Gov. Whitmer marches with protesters calling for justice for George Floyd. Photo courtesy Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Whitmer marches with protesters calling for justice for George Floyd. Photo courtesy Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

While President Trump suggests chokeholds “sounds so innocent,” Michigan’s governor is taking action to ban the often deadly practice in local law enforcement agencies.

MICHIGAN — “I can’t breathe.”

Alarmingly often, those words precede the death of an unarmed Black person in police custody. This is usually the result of methods of restraint that obstruct the breathing of the victim. These chokeholds are one of the issues Gov. Gretchen Whitmer seeks to address in a slate of police reforms proposed last week. 

Chokeholds have become so emblematic of the struggle against police brutality that “I can’t breathe” has become a common cry of protesters and the bereaved. And some activists hope banning chokeholds will help reframe the role of officers overall.

“We need a general toning down of police tactics and perceptions of the citizens they work with and observe, and maybe restricting available options of force will force some out-of-the-box thinking,” attorney and activist Jamonte Cannon told The ̕Gander. “You’re patrolling places like Ferndale, not Fallujah.”

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Although it became associated with the death of Eric Garner in 2014, the phrase is tied to dozens of deaths. In the past ten years, 70 people have died in police custody saying some variation of those three words. The New York Times presented those cases in a striking format, showing quote after quote. 

Those cases include the recent death of Minneapolis man George Floyd, whose death after a police officer knelt on his neck sparked national outrage and grief that spurred on the current debate over policing. 

Whitmer’s proposal includes all forms of windpipe blocking, including the chokehold that killed George Floyd. 

“All Michiganders, no matter their community or the color of their skin, deserve equal treatment under the law,” Gov. Whitmer said in her announcement. “This proposal will help us ensure that law enforcement officials treat all Michiganders with humanity and respect, and will help us keep our communities safe. I will continue working with leaders in law enforcement to make public safety more just and equitable in Michigan.”

That all said, Cannon still worries that the ban on chokeholds is treating a high-profile symptom.

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“The ban on chokeholds sounds like a knee-jerk reaction to a news story, like those bans or limits on certain guns that people advocate for right after a shooting,” he said. “That said, I think there’s some merit to this ban.”

Cannon sees the proposed ban as just one step in the right direction.

While a federal court ruled in King v. United States that chokeholds were not lawful in Michigan, some departments still authorize the practice when deadly force is permitted, Bridge reports. Further, existing policies prohibiting restraints that obstruct breathing have been subject to lax enforcement. 

As NPR reports, despite decades of the practice being formally prohibited in New York City, officers in New York were actually using them with increasing frequency according to findings from the Civilian Complaint Review Board. One of those chokeholds led to the death of Garner. 

“This really clarifies that we want our police departments to be different and accountable and also efficient, effective, and respectful of people,” said Shelli Weisberg, political director for the ACLU of Michigan, told The Detroit News. “The Legislature needs to move quickly to make sure these suggestions don’t become a plan on a shelf.”

Banning chokeholds is a policy that has gained traction at all levels of government, CNN reports, and even President Donald Trump has supported limiting the practice. Though he did say that there are circumstances where they should be allowed.

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“I think the concept of chokehold sounds so innocent, so perfect,” Trump said on Fox News. “And then you realize if it’s a one-on-one. Now if it’s two-on-one, that’s a little bit of a different story, depending on the toughness and strength. You know, we’re talking about toughness and strength.” 

National Republicans have preferred a policy that discourages but doesn’t outright ban chokeholds, reports The Washington Post, in contrast to Congressional Democrats who voted to ban the practice. 

A bill currently under consideration in the Michigan Senate mirrors Whitmer’s proposal to ban chokeholds.