“I can’t breathe”—these are now America’s defining words. Back once again in the national imagination, the words refer to Eric Garner, the young black man who died from a chokehold by a New York City policeman in 2014. At this point, there are so many accrued police-violence cases that a tally should be in the making, not unlike the tallies that have rolled out each day to monitor COVID-19 deaths. Perhaps they should be combined? In fact, connecting these two occurrences is critical. COVID-19 and the police violence against black men are both pandemics.
In 2020, “I can’t breathe” intertwines the history of the coronavirus with the history of racially inflected police violence. The words now resound in both scenarios of COVID-19 and the recent instance of police violence experienced by George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May. The world is transfixed by both events and the emphasis on breath that they both stage: COVID-19 and the struggle for air that often comes with it, as well as George Floyd’s plea, a reinstantiation of Garner’s words, “I can’t breathe.”
It’s hard not to reflect upon the strange familiarity of Floyd’s last words and the resonance of his case with Garner’s. This has been noted and remarked upon in news media and by the protesters on the ground in Minnesota and elsewhere. Less has been said about how “I can’t breathe” also resonates with the current COVID-19 crisis. There are attempts to remove the discussion of the one from the discussion of the other. True, they are entirely different situationally, but there is a crucial common thread—racial and economic oppression. Giving these stories space from each other makes sense but so too does bringing discussions of them closer together.
Connecting rather than siloing COVID-19 and the George Floyd case is important and crucial. An opportunity arises, now, from the pervasiveness, the territorial as well as the situational globality, of “I can’t breathe.” Its expansion into the universal medical complex and also its routine occurrence on American streets, in part motivated by the prison industrial complex, compels action and redress. While the circumstances of COVID-19 and George Floyd’s death are not the same, the outcomes of both are heavily impacted by American race and class imbalances. COVID-19 death statistics reveal racial disparity in American society and so does the George Floyd incident. Only an unarmed black man could be kneed to death in broad daylight with bystanders and three other police officers there to witness it.
Recognizing how these are on the same continuum is imperative. Why? Because they both make American race and class discrimination abundantly clear and apparent. Exploring the common ground would be productive on various levels. It would also help in finally recognizing and thinking through the ongoing racial violence and systemic racial injustice that impact black people’s bodies, making them more susceptible to hypertension and heart disease. As Achille Mbembe puts it in “The Universal Right to Breathe”: “Try as we might to rid ourselves of it, in the end everything brings us back to the body.” The black body shows up in response to a long history of racial violence and oppression, with injuries such as high blood pressure and heart disease. They are what ultimately make COVID-19 a more detrimental and life-threatening virus; according to the coroner’s report, they may have contributed to George Floyd’s death by asphyxiation. Then, it seems that the preconditions of a COVID-19 demise and the preconditions for Mr. Floyd’s death also correlate and connect in ways that should not be underestimated for what they both reveal about the black body in America.
“I can’t breathe” is a phrase that now indexes the black body. Compounded utterances of it in both the locale of the hospital and the locale of the streets are eerie and unsettling. This is disturbing because breath is the most basic human birthright. Life commences with an all-important first breath and life ends when breathing stops. Insofar as breath is symbolic for life, the lives of black people are crucially at stake, always perhaps but, at this particular moment, in numbers that are even more profound due to the coterminity of COVID-19 and police incited racial violence.
3 June 2020
Romi Crawford is a professor in the Visual and Critical Studies and Liberal Arts Departments at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her research revolves around ideas of race and ethnicity and their relation to American art and visual culture.