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We can’t breathe!

Carlos Barón

Only yesterday, the entire world was consumed with concern about a virus. One called COVID-19, AKA Coronavirus. Just about every news item printed on newspapers, aired over television or radio, or shared on the widely used social media outlets, focused on that sickness. A physical malady still rampantly reigning over Mother Earth.

Two weeks ago, the headline of my last column included the word “breath,” as in respite. 

With the whole globe quarantined, those who could do it were getting a much needed moment to breathe, brought about by the pandemic. It would allow the world to think about our choices, about our priorities, as we prepared for what is being called “a new reality.” 

(Of course, we have to say that others never paused. Poverty does not allow it. Their new reality will most likely look exactly—or worse—than the old one.)

That was then. Suddenly, vertiginously, the focus has shifted. An old, evil social virus took center stage: racism.

This week, the word “breathe” on a headline makes for a vastly more urgent reference.

It refers to the anguished appeal made by a Black man named George Floyd, who uttered the words when his life was being snuffed away by a white Minneapolis police officer, as the “peace” officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck. Until Floyd died. For no reason.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! Momma! I can’t breathe!” Those were some of the last words that George Floyd could say, before he stopped breathing.

Today, those words resonate around the entire United States. As it happened a few ugly times before, a great majority of people are repeating them out loud, chanting them on the streets, painting them on walls and poems. Songs are being written with those words in them. 

A protester holds a sign representing George Floyd with “I cant breath” captioned. San Francisco, June 3, 2020. Photo: Benjamin Fanjoy

The “I can’t breathe” has turned into a “We can’t breathe!”

It has become more than the knee of a man crushing the neck of another: it is the knee of racism weighing down an entire nation. Preventing its healing. Attacking and blaming the healers. 

Many people in the U.S. feel forgotten, afraid, divided, lied to, confounded, exploited, brutalized. The country seems to be abandoned by its leaders.

But a radical wind seems to be blowing across the nation. Perhaps announcing an awakening from a toxic stupor. In all 50 states, protests have erupted.

In times like these, whether we are a writer for a community newspaper, an undocumented worker, a high school student, a retired teacher, a doctor, a day laborer, or an unemployed musician, we are likely to feel a great urgency. The urgency to speak, to shout, to march, to fight the power, to speak your truth, a truth that might be yet unspoken, but feels like a volcano about to erupt. A wind needed to clean the ugly hubris of a system that pretends to be the best, while knowing quite well that it is selling damaged goods.

And we want to be effective, we want to be clear-headed, inspirational. We want to be tough, but we also want to be loving, because one of the strongest feelings under the fire that has been lit, is a feeling of love. 

It feels, finally, like the kind of love we felt as we boomers marched in the heady 60s, when the group The Youngbloods sang: “Come on people now! Smile on your brother! Everybody get together! Try to love one another, right now. Right now!”

As I planned the column, I wanted my writing to reflect all of the above. I wanted to inspire.

Then, I saw the way very young people became surprising and able organizers. I saw older folks joining them willingly, happily. 

Suddenly, large masses of people were willing to put their bodies at risk, defying not only the well-trained brutality of police forces all over the country, but also their own fears and doubts.

People from different races and backgrounds were marching down the streets of the United States with hopes for a better nation as their common flag.  

Those people seemed already inspired.

Perhaps inspired by a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Or inspired by a harsh, widely seen video taken by a 17-year old Black teen named Darnella Frazier, as she stood firm and filmed the horrifying ending to George Floyd’s life. She tightened her lips and managed to calm her heart. For all of us, because Darnella became everyone’s witness.

On June 2, her lawyer, Seth B. Cobin, told the NY Daily News: “She did the right thing…(and) just realized ‘I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to stand up’…and it changed history. I believe that Darnella is the Rosa Parks of her generation.” 

It was not easy for Darnella to stand. It was not easy for Rosa Parks to remain seated. Both women inspired. Yesterday and today.

Or we all might be inspired by a very timely quote from Malcolm X:  “That’s Not A Chip On My Shoulder. That’s Your Foot On My Neck.”

Or we might be inspired by the leadership exhibited by the young students from San Francisco’s Mission High School, who managed to organize a flawless and peaceful rally of over 16,000 people last week, as they signaled to the world that they have arrived, they have joined us, they can be leading us.

Until we can all breathe freely, let us inspire each other. It is a harsh fight against a harsh reality. 

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