Politics

America Gasps for Air

The virus and the cops and the masks and the anxiety all have the same result.

A white police officer in a mask arrests a black protester, whose mask is pulled down.
Police arrest protesters walking on FDR Drive, stopping traffic, as they demonstrate over the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer at a rally on May 30, 2020 in New York. BRYAN R. SMITH/Getty Images

“I can’t breathe.” That was one of the last things George Floyd could be heard saying as Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin pinned him to the ground with his knee until he died. In 2015, Eric Harris was shot by Tulsa reserve deputy Robert Bates, and as Harris struggled to breathe, another cop on the scene told him, “fuck your breath.” Eric Garner’s last words in 2015, were “I can’t breathe,” eleven times, as he pleaded for air while officer Daniel Pantaleo held him in a chokehold, head pinned to a sidewalk, until he died.

When you die from the coronavirus, your lungs fill with fluid until you are gasping to draw breath. “I couldn’t breathe” is the descriptor I hear most frequently from friends who’ve been put on ventilators, who describe gasping for air, and a kind of slow-burn drowning sensation in the lungs.

When we go to the store, gloved and masked, the worst part is the mask, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, needs to snugly cover both the nose and mouth. For many people, the discomfort around the mask has less to do with masculinity or identity than the simple fact that they cannot fully draw breath when their nose and mouth and covered in cloth.

When we sent so-called “essential workers” to their jobs without PPE, and demanded that they breathe in a disease that was literally killing people, we seem to have forgotten that breathing, unlike other bodily functions, is a group activity. We are all only as robust as the last person who breathed upon us.

It’s pure coincidence that America feels like it is dying this summer because nobody can breathe. It’s a powerful metaphor though, and one that bears some parsing: Cities are literally on fire and nobody can breathe, people of color are being strangled by white police officers and their last words— captured on camera—are “I can’t breathe.” A pandemic has taken over 100,000 lives and the death, the disease, and the attempt at prevention keep us from breathing fully.

To be dying of a lack of air is a powerful symbol; it’s a metaphor for scarcity, for insufficiency. It’s a marker for ways in which the “richest country in the world,” the “most powerful nation in the world,” and the “leader of the western world” somehow finds itself gasping. Fighting for what should be plentiful. Suffocating is different from a heart attack, different from a stroke. I think about suffocating as something that creeps up on you; you lose your breath little by little, maybe barely even noticing at first; thinking you have the means to get it back. And by then, suddenly, it hits you that this is a serious crisis and that your breath might be lost for good. This one essential function—breathe in, breathe out—feels like it captures something very deep about inequality, and anxiety, about childhood asthma and pollution and desperate poverty. Breath is something that seems like it will go on forever, until you realize that it will not.

You can’t breathe when the world is on fire. And you can’t breathe when you are unable to stop screaming with anger, frustration, and fear. You can’t breathe when you are sobbing or terrified.

To be unable to breathe feels like a comment, too, on climate change and clean air and all the things that science agreed upon long ago, and that most of the world conceded to long ago, and that this Administration decided to ignore and deprioritize and disappear. To be unable to breathe feels like a comment, too, on interconnectedness; on the myth that I breathe out and you breathe in, and no matter we prefer, we are linked. We insist on pretending that the act of breathing upon one another—with or without masks, inside or outside of church, across ephemeral and invisible state lines—means that our actions can’t kill others, and that their actions can’t kill us. To breathe, in other words, is to be intimately connected to the people around us, even as we insist we are all islands.

Ask anyone who practices yoga, or meditates, what America has lost along the way, and she will tell you it is an awareness of the breath; its centrality and transience, and all the ways in which we have only this moment, to breathe in and out, and also that when we forget to breathe, we are lost. And maybe it’s just that F. Scott Fitzgerald seems to be haunting me these days, but didn’t he call this one, too, about what happens when you start to breathe in only the shabby dreams of drifting ghosts? “A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.”

We can’t breathe, and the words “last gasps” seem to have taken on a new force as we contemplate the stunning fact that we all breathe the same air, whether we like it or not, and that a nation in which only some people can draw breath safely is not a nation, but rather a tenuous hostage situation. This is of course a call for the reimagining of an America in which everyone can breathe freely, which was probably itself only a dream, but which might still be achievable.  It would require refining our understanding of air, and space, science, frailty and connection, in ways that seem to demand something more than the current moment affords. The answer to “I can’t breathe” has got to be “then let me breathe for you.” But maybe that moment, too, is already gone.

“God
It’s my face man
I didn’t do nothing serious man
please
please
please I can’t breathe
please man
please somebody
please man
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe
please
(inaudible)
man can’t breathe my face
just get up
I can’t breathe
please (inaudible)
I can’t breath shit
I will
I can’t move
mama
mama
I can’t
my knee
my nuts
I’m through
I’m through
I’m claustrophobic
my stomach hurt
my neck hurts
everything hurts
some water or something
please
please
I can’t breath officer
don’t kill me
they gon kill me man
come on man
I cannot breathe
I cannot breathe
they gon kill me
they gon kill me
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe
please sir
please
please
please I can’t breathe”
-George Floyd