‘I can’t breathe.’
It is the refrain of the day. The rant of the night. The anthem of what may, if we sustain this plaintive note, become a movement.
Or not. Because we have been here before. In this very place — the place we visit and tell ourselves each time that this is the last time, the very last time, the never again time.
And it feels so familiar, this place of hate and race, like a back road you stumble upon in the darkest of hours.
To be here leaves us outraged and bereft. Yelling in the streets, sobbing on one another’s shoulders, making promises we know we won’t keep.
Things must change, we say. Be the change, we say. The change you want to see, we say.
But we don’t see. And the only thing that changes is the channel, luring us with the next glittering, ghastly thing.
As if by nightmarish instinct, we will eventually navigate our way out of this backward back road. Smoke will clear. The debris of signs and slogans will be swept away. Graffiti will fade. And we won’t exactly forget, or forgive, but in some twisted justification, or a too-damn-tired-of-giving-a-damn fatigue, we will move on.
Until the next time. This time. This prime-time crime time. The murder of a black man in broad daylight, sordid and recorded, broadcast and blast … around a weeping world.
This time does feel different. Fiercer and more fragile at the same time. The rumble of thunder backed by lightning flash. A moment that may, just maybe, become a movement and make us better.
‘I can’t breathe,’ said George Floyd as he was choked to death by a police officer in Minneapolis.
‘I can’t breathe,’ said Eric Garner, 11 times before succumbing on a New York City sidewalk.
‘We can’t breathe,’ say the voices of bodies buried under lynching trees and the souls of those packed like spoons in slave ships.
‘We can’t breathe’ is the truth of those who can’t walk away from historic inequality and daily indignity.
Those who struggle under the crush of an oppressive system, which, never mind the Benetton ads, a beloved black president or fall-short attempts at affirmative action, is still not working or fair or equal to all.
Those who are disproportionately affected by environmental and economic and health calamity.
Those who are not only not protected by those we’re taught to trust and turn to, but targeted, beaten, brutalized and killed.
And all of us, every one and every color of us, should choke on that reality, that disparity, that immorality. We should do more than weep and crease our brows in ‘I’m woke too’ solidarity.
We should fight for the right for everyone to breathe … to live … to fulfill the promise of hope inscribed on our own Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”
It is not lost on any of us that this pandemic of racism coincides with a pandemic of ill. And while angels of mercy find machines to help the afflicted breathe, the breath and life of others is being extinguished with impunity. While we watch. While we hold our breath waiting for change.
I am a white woman. I do not presume to understand the depth of what my friends of color endure every single day.
I am a mother, too; a mother who forever worries about her children, grown as they may be. But those worries don’t include the fear of my son being harassed or harmed or killed by a police officer for the color of his skin. To the mothers and fathers having to have ‘the talk’ with young black men — black children — I am weak-in-the-knees sorry and saddened. The hardest part of parenting is seeing the trusting innocence of youth flee. It goes soon enough, without any help.
Here’s a truth I expect crosses racial, ethnic and cultural bounds. Children always think their mothers expect too much of them. When in truth, all we expect and pray is that you inhale … exhale … breathe … and be.
And we will go to the ends of the earth and the gates of hell to keep you breathing, being, living.
So to hear George Floyd, with a knee to his neck, plead for his life and with his last stolen breath call out ‘Mama’ — that is a color-blind plea for all of humanity. It is a cry for salvation and grace. A prayer for peace.
Shame on all of us, every one and every color of us, if we don’t hear and see and make it stop.
Watching a man die at the hands of another should elicit a reaction not swayed by race. That ‘any decent human,’ ‘anyone with a heart or pulse’ would respond in grief — and rise to act.
We are rising, across the nation, night after night, in ways reverent and ways profane. Rising in mourning, outrage, desperation, and yes, even and still, hope.
We rise. We hope. And we breathe fire.
Flames of rage that are red-hot, white-hot, cleansing and put to the task of forging a not-perfect-but-more-so union. We are like a dragon, spitting flames and coiling through the streets of cities that burn.
No one condones violence — or dragons that torch the kingdom. But we know this place. This charred and scarred place that reeks of sulphur and despair.
We know what has sparked the blaze, centuries worth of fuel and fodder, kindled by a $20 bill.
We just don’t know how to make it stop.