Eight minutes and forty-six seconds is how long it took for America to stop breathing.
“I can’t breathe!” We’ve been here before, but this time is different. Those words are indelibly etched in both our history and collective psyche.
It is an apt metaphor for the times we’re living through. The wildfire of protest and civil unrest have replaced the droning coverage of COVID-19 infections and death with death. There is an elegiac symbiosis between the debilitating respiratory effects of COVID-19 and the murder of Gregory Floyd by asphyxiation that we all witnessed at the knees of Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin.
Although this was not the only high profile, deadly encounter between the police and black citizens this year, the Floyd murder is so conscience shocking, it encapsulates the collective fears and rage of black people as well as the breadth of entrenched racism and systemic pathos that go back to centuries of killing and destroying black bodies.
Floyd’s lynching reveals — again — the structural fault lines of race and class in America. The burning and looting is ill-informed, but understandable in response to the countless deaths of black men in police custody. Police brutality, catalyzed by racism and economic inequality in our society, has metastasized into a generalized distrust of all institutional authority.
Chauvin was arrested only after the state prosecutor realized that failure to so do would have unknowable consequences. The charges fail to account for the grave evil of Chauvin’s murderous display, countenanced by his three co-conspirators under the color the state. George Floyd’s murder was the combustible element needed to create the chaos and unrest centuries in the making.
There is a pervasive cultural pathology in America — and across the globe — that has evolved into the stage four-like cancer spread by the election of Donald Trump. We see the replication of ‘Trumpism’ in South America and Europe. To be clear, Derek Chauvin and his fellow officers are directly responsible for the murder of George Floyd, but they and people like them have been listening to Trump’s dog whistle blow loud and clear every time Trump is at a podium and certainly whenever he tweets.
Throughout this ordeal Trump has baited the worst motivations of people — on both sides. It has become increasingly difficult — and sometime impossible — for people of color and poor people to breath, literally and figuratively.
Racism and economic oppression are deeply rooted in the formulation of the republic. The Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crowe find their revenants in Civil Rights marches, Barack Obama and his post-racial America and the neo-Jim Crowe mentality of Trumpism. The mediation and healing of the trauma that comes from inequality, racism and classism must be pursued without the calculus of zero-sum political considerations.
From the structural inequalities to ole boy networks in Congress who maintain the status quo at any cost, to the individual judgments we make about each other based on skin color, class, gender identity, the way people walk, talk eat and pray, all must be reconfigured without the biases we attach to them. We must see each other’s humanity through the mirror of our own selves. Until that happens, history will continue to record social unrest and the human tragedies they represent.
2020 has borne a triumvirate of disease, economic collapse and social unrest, exposing the sickly underbelly of American exceptionalism. As communities are reopened, ever so gingerly, it has been a cue for us to be hopeful that social distance and the careful navigation of space and sensibility will be that which allows us to move forward in spite of COVID-19. Like COVID-19’s damaging impact on other body organs, right now all of our societal ills have been exposed, are bleeding and in need of intensive care.
After the furor abates, body counts will increase, more black and brown people will be incarcerated and communities destroyed, and if history continues to be an indicator of the future, those communities will forever lose those businesses, residences and communal spaces that formerly sustained them. We can and should lay our grievances on the table. We must dismantle the structures that divide us and educate and re-educate anyone or anything that condemns the humanity of another. We must engender tolerance and acceptance of cultural and ethnic differences. We must fix problems and forge alliances to accomplish common goals.
Seeing the value of our individual and collective humanity should be an overarching theme that is pursued. There is serious work to be done in the restoration of the American dream, lest it be just a dream.
The coming fall is pregnant with both fear and opportunity. We have been warned about the real possibility of a second wave of the coronavirus during what will be the flu season. And in the process, we’ve discovered our social cancer is no longer in remission. The fall will be a time of decision.
We’re leaderless during a time when we need leadership like never before. America has been through dark periods in the past and managed to find its place as the shining light on the hill. Other challenges await us. Climate change and its ramifications for the whole planet is yet to be addressed. Globalization has created an intersectionality for all people in all places. We must look past our individual selves right now and see one and all, if we are to have tomorrows. So please … Breathe! Breathe! Breathe!
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.