Before Floyd, a Black man screamed ‘I can’t breathe’ then died

Edward Bronstein struggled, screamed repeatedly, then fell silent as California officers held him down.

Edward Bronstein, 38, is being taken into custody by CHP officers on March 31, 2020, following a traffic stop in Los Angeles
Edward Bronstein's family has filed a federal lawsuit against the officers, alleging excessive force and a violation of civil rights [California Highway Patrol via AP]

Two months before George Floyd uttered the words that would dominate Black Lives Matter demonstrations, another Black man in California died after screaming “I can’t breathe” while multiple officers restrained him as they tried to take a blood sample, according to records and a video.

Edward Bronstein, 38, was taken into custody by California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers on March 31, 2020, following a traffic stop. Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25 of that year as he, too, repeatedly told officers “I can’t breathe” as an officer knelt on his neck and two others held him down.

A nearly 18-minute video, taken by a CHP sergeant at the Altadena station, was released Tuesday after a judge’s order to make it public. Bronstein’s family has filed a federal lawsuit against the officers, alleging excessive force and a violation of civil rights. The family is also calling for the officers to be criminally charged by the Los Angeles County district attorney.

The LA County coroner’s office ruled Bronstein’s cause of death as “acute methamphetamine intoxication during restraint by law enforcement”. A copy of the autopsy report was not immediately available.

Black Lives Matter protest
George Floyd’s death has led to demands to reform policing and hold police officers accountable for crimes [File: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo]

“When the nation was in an uproar over the George Floyd tragedy, we had no idea this had also happened to Mr Bronstein,” said Luis Carrillo, a lawyer for Bronstein’s family.

Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020 in Minnesota unleashed nationwide protests and created a moment of reckoning in the US over the nation’s deeply rooted history of racism and discrimination towards Black Americans. Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison last year. The three other officers who were present were found guilty last month of violating Floyd’s civil rights.

Many of the protests were organised by local chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was founded in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch leader who shot dead Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager.

Floyd’s death has led to demands to reform policing and hold police officers accountable for crimes.

In September 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law barring police from using certain face-down holds that have led to multiple unintended deaths. The law was passed after Bronstein’s death and was aimed at expanding the state’s ban on chokeholds in the wake of Floyd’s murder.

Family members say Bronstein was terrified of needles and believe that is why he was reluctant to comply with the CHP initially as they tried to take a blood sample. In the video, an officer tells Bronstein they have a court order – an assertion that Carrillo doubts was true.

An officer tells Bronstein to take a seat for the sample: “This is your last opportunity. Otherwise you’re going face down on the mat and we’re gonna keep on going.”

Several officers force the handcuffed man to the mat as he shouts “I’ll do it willingly! I’ll do it willingly, I promise!”, the video shows. At least five officers continue to hold him down – the lawsuit alleges they put their knees on his back – as he screams “I’ll do it! I’ll do it! I promise!”

One officer replies: “It’s too late.”

Sign reading "I can't breathe" at a protest
Video showed Edward Bronstein screamed “I can’t breathe!” about eight times and pleaded for help as the officers continued to restrain him on the ground [File: Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters]

Bronstein begins screaming “I can’t breathe!” and “I can’t!” before the blood is taken, shouting it about eight times and pleading for help as the officers continue to restrain him on the ground.

“Stop yelling!” an officer yells back.

Bronstein’s screams get softer and he soon falls silent. Even though he is not responsive, a medical professional continues to draw blood as the officers hold him down.

They note he may not have a pulse and does not appear to be breathing. The officers and the medical professional slap Bronstein’s face, saying “Edward, wake up”.

More than 11 minutes after Bronstein’s last screams, they begin CPR.

The lawsuit names nine officers and one sergeant.

Source: Al Jazeera, AP