I Can’t Breathe

These days my interactions with people are fairly consistent. Most encounters take place during the course of my (now twice daily) walks. The scene plays out as follows. Me walking along the sidewalk now suddenly aware of them approaching from up ahead. Panic curls its bony fingers around my heart as I leap off the sidewalk and into the street to flee to the other side. In my eagerness to execute the Covid dash, I barely avoid being run down by neighborhood traffic. Wouldn’t that just be my luck to survive a once in a century global pandemic only to be run over by someone reading a text message. Even in the relative safety of outside’s fresh air, it feels dangerous to breathe. It’s our most basic right, breathing; yet I never conceived a virus could come along and weaponize it against us. The neighborhood where I live is in an interesting part of the country. I’m exactly half-way between Washington, D.C. the US capitol and Richmond, VA, once the capitol of the Confederate States of America. As of the first week of June, Richmond’s black Covid-19 related death rate is 77%, though black people are only 48% of the population. The numbers reported in DC tell a similar story with 47% of DC’s population and Covid-19 cases being black people and yet they represent 76% of the deaths. To be clear it’s dangerous for everyone to breathe in America right now; after all, Covid-19 spreads through respiratory droplets. That said, it’s acutely dangerous if one is breathing while black. Breathing is inextricably linked to existence. The story of the world’s origin tells us that God’s first gift to man was His breath. He literally bent down and breathed life into the first man and he became a living soul.

     On Memorial Day of this year that gift was violently taken from a man in Minneapolis in a way that has rippled aftershocks around the world. George Floyd did not die from Covid-19 and yet he did. He worked as a bouncer at a restaurant called Conga Latin Bistro. The club’s hours before the Minnesota shelter-in-place policy was 5pm to 2am. Mr. Floyd likely would have been at work instead of buying cigarettes that evening. He was accused of paying with a counterfeit bill and the police were called. Three police vehicles pulled up, the last one carrying Officers Chauvin and Thao. When Mr. Floyd protested being put in the back of the police vehicle he was pulled to the ground by Office Chauvin who placed his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck and held it there for the rest of his life. I watched the video of the arrest and looked repeatedly into the eyes of the policemen as bystanders pleaded with them. To be honest they looked dead inside. They looked like men reduced to the snap reactions from the fight-or-flight lizard part of the brain. I don’t know what trauma choked out their humanity, but it has led to the ultimate price. Mr. Floyd told the officers at least 16 times in 5 minutes that he could not breathe. Still, Officer Chauvin very calmly held his position even after he lay limp and lifeless like a broken doll.

     Among the feelings of sadness, anger and confusion a burning question lingers in my mind. How does a man who shot 9 people in a South Carolina church that prayed with him and welcomed him like a brother get safely arrested, yet George Floyd dies over $20? Many days this year it has felt like I’m getting punched in the gut repeatedly while drinking from a fire hydrant. How do we find meaning and redemption in these dark circumstances? From this and the many other surreal experiences this year, we’re all flooded emotionally and caught in waves of anxiety, depression and stress. Perhaps there is some redemption in these painful experiences if we allow them to catalyze positive movement. Let the disgust we feel at this public lynching compel us to demand better of our government leaders, both locally and nationally. Let’s take the fear we hold for losing loved ones to Covid-19 and let that pull us closer to the people we love. Don’t let them ever question whether or not they matter. Allow your mental exhaustion from the chaos in the 24 hour news cycle to cause you to lie down and rest. As we of all races wrestle with heart wrenching pain in this moment, we need to remember that healing from grief is a marathon not a sprint. The decisions we will make for this country need rested, clear minds. Take time to unplug and disconnect. There’s plenty to be outraged about, but let love be the guiding light of this force for change. That starts by loving yourself. So take a moment, slow down, and in memory of George Floyd, just breathe.

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