You can put your hands up, you can put your hands down, you can lay on the ground, you can run away and the police will still shoot you. And even worse, once your life is gone, the media will take your memory. You’ll end up as a mugshot on a page or a number or a body count...
I’m tired of this, I’m frustrated, and I’m angry. I don’t know what to do. So, I’m doing the one thing I know how to do: I’m trying to take charge of what seems to be an inevitable fate at this point.
I recorded those words in 2016 after police in Oklahoma killed Terence Crutcher and then, four days later, police in North Carolina killed Keith Lamont Scott. My Facebook video shared details about where I grew up, what I like to eat, my hobbies and my interests before asking people to remember these details should police take my life and the media try to spin the narrative.
At the time I recorded the video, I felt like I couldn’t go online without seeing images of Black people being murdered, killed or beaten. Even if I tried to avoid the news, Facebook or Twitter, I would still receive links to articles and videos from well-meaning friends and colleagues. I clenched my jaw whenever my phone vibrated. I held my breath. I dreaded the sound of what amounted to death notices of killed Black men and women. I struggled to process the trauma and grief that I was experiencing. I felt numb.
In the midst of this global pandemic, I face a familiar struggle. The pandemic is making the world smaller as we shelter in place, and yet the world is made smaller still for Black people.
I have been sheltering in place for 80 days, but I have not felt more isolated than during the past week as people have circulated video of Minneapolis police killing George Floyd, leaked cellphone footage showing the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and news of the police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. and Tony McDade in Tallahassee.
I cannot bring myself to watch the video of George Floyd’s killing. I do not want to see it. How could I possibly benefit from seeing his last breath, and the light behind the eyes and skin of a face like mine extinguished from the world because of racism?
But his last moments have sparked protests around the world and renewed calls for an end to police brutality and, in some cases, to defund the police. In Canada, we invoke the names of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-Indigenous woman, and D’Andre Campbell, a young Black man; these were police responses during this pandemic that ended with the loss of Black life.
“Our timelines and pages are littered with footage of knees on throats, lynch mobs and countless other violences against Black people.”
The reality of this pandemic is that sheltering in place looks different for Black people than it does for others. We are not only trying to survive a global pandemic, but are also processing overwhelming anxiety and grief as we mourn the loss of Black life and continue to navigate racism at all levels of society.
Social distancing snitch lines, discrimination in health care, racist media coverage and police harassment each constrain the spaces we can inhabit. To see this in action, look no further than the video of a white woman calling police on Christian Cooper, a Black man birding in New York’s Central Park. She said she feared for her life — in doing so, she threatened Cooper with police violence and possibly death.
The digital and virtual realms that offered us some reprieve from isolation have now become inhospitable. Our timelines and pages are littered with footage of knees on throats, lynch mobs and countless other violences against Black people. As people perform shock and dismay, Black pain has become a commodity to be extracted, consumed and trafficked while ultimately removed from its source: the agonizing loss of Black life.
To the Black people navigating ongoing racial violence during a pandemic, today, I ask you: breathe deeply.
If a profound tranquility washes over you, I am grateful, but this is not why I have asked this of you.
Breath is life, and I need the fullness of your life here, right now, amid all this chaos. I am asking you — begging you, really — to breathe from the depths of your being. Take up space even if it is only in your kitchen or bedroom.
As I write this, tear gas fills the streets of Montreal, Minneapolis, Brooklyn, Washington and several other cities. The police have fired tear gas and pepper spray into crowds that are visibly majority Black during a pandemic caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory system. They are trying to asphyxiate us and extinguish our voices. George Floyd, like Eric Garner before him, pleaded for air. They could not breathe.
I need you to breathe deeply.
“How can anyone call this pandemic the great equalizer when our mental and physical well-being remain perpetually under threat?”
As your phone vibrates with notifications of Black people dying and you confront headlines pulled verbatim from officer’s mouths to the reporter’s fingertips, I need you to breathe deeply.
Know that I will not place your humanity in parentheses and scare quotes under the auspices of fairness and accuracy in reporting. I will never express concern about property damage over the loss of a precious life. I will not say that this is an American problem. I will never use the passive voice when talking about a police killing because, no matter what others report, a weapon was not discharged and a suspect hit before succumbing to their injuries; rather, an officer pulled the trigger of a gun and killed a mother, a father, a child or a friend — a member of our community.
How can anyone call this pandemic the great equalizer when our mental and physical well-being remain perpetually under threat?
The comorbidities that make us more susceptible to this virus were spawned by anti-Black racism in health care, in the court system, in so many areas of your life. Your asthma came from the incinerator around the corner and the mouldy walls in your apartment building. Your hypertension is the legacy of a society that chronically undervalues and demeans you. So, too, is the risk you face now as an essential worker, pots and pans clanging on the streets as you work in unsafe conditions in the grocery store, nursing home, hospital, bus and taxi.
To the Black people navigating racial violence during a pandemic, clenching your teeth as your face fills with tears, if you do nothing else today, I am asking you to breathe deeply.
Pull your breath from the top of your throat to the depths of your belly, continue to live, continue to fight, and know that you are seen. Whether you are sheltering in place, on the streets in protest, or a frontline worker, or anywhere else, I am begging you to inflate your lungs and take up space in a world intent on restricting you.
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