“I can’t breathe.”

Published by Doug Bland on

With homemade signs and chants, protesters in Phoenix and around the world echo the words of George Floyd, the latest casualty of police brutality against an unarmed, black man: “I can’t breathe.” 

A white police officer’s knee presses on a black man’s throat for 8 minutes and 40 seconds: “I can’t breathe.” 

Of course it’s not the first time we’ve heard those words.   In 2014 Eric Garner begged for breath from a NYPD chokehold 11 times before losing consciousness.  Protesters and professional athletes amplified the desperate call.  #ICantBreathe was tweeted over a million times in December of 2014. A Yale Librarian listed it as the quote of the year:  “I can’t breathe.”   

At the end of 2014, The Washington Post mused, “Will Garner’s final words — and the debate about race and the criminal justice system to which they’re now connected — fade from public consciousness in a year or two?”  Mostly the answer has been “yes.”  In between the latest story of police brutality and the murders of young black people, the plea for breath fades from our news and our consciousness… but we can’t be free of the haunting cry:  “I can’t breathe.” 

From ICU units around the country where black people are dying at nearly three times the rate of whites from COVID-19 because of underlying health issues caused by food apartheid, toxic air, the stress of living while black, and inadequate health care, we hear the call, “I can’t breathe.” 

In communities of color where the air is poisoned by dirty coal and Superfund sites. Where the asthma rates among children are three times higher than in white communities, we hear the call, “I can’t breathe.” 

The same system that allows a white police officer to asphyxiate George Floyd is the very same system that, in the name of order and profit, poisons black children in Flint with bad water, and the Navajo with Uranium mines, and Latinx communities with Superfund sites, and the Standing Rock Nation with oil pipelines that leak. Theologian James Cone warned us that “People who fight against white racism but fail to connect it to the degradation of the earth are anti-ecological—whether they know it or not.  People who struggle against environmental degradation but do not incorporate in it a disciplined and sustained fight against white supremacy are racists—whether they acknowledge it or not.  The fight for justice can’t be segregated but must be integrated with the fight for life in all its forms.”  (“Whose Earth is it Anyway?”) 

Today, for the sake of George Floyd and the sake of our Mother Earth, we can no longer ignore the cry, 

“I can’t breathe.” 

Author: Rev. Doug Bland, Executive Director, Arizona Interfaith Power & Light

Image credit: Thanks to munshots for sharing their work on Unsplash.


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