Who gets to breathe free in this America?
Not your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, demonized by the president and his acolytes as invaders, infectors, and rapists. Not the wretched refuse of other teeming shores, countries he has derided in one scatological swoop.
Not the wretched souls of our own, either. Black Americans are entering a fifth century of miseries, the shackles that held those first generations replaced by less overt restraints, with locks that snap shut in courtrooms, schools, legislative chambers, and the nondescript offices of bank managers and election officials. Tired doesn’t even begin to capture it.
Not George Floyd, his neck crushed beneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer for close to nine minutes: “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe. Please, man.” The criminal complaint says Derek Chauvin kept Floyd pinned for 2 minutes and 53 seconds after he became unresponsive, though bystanders pleaded in vain for his victim’s life.
Not the countless other Black men and women killed by police officers —their status as victims widely acknowledged only because there is video to prove it, or an Ivy League education to buttress their worth.
Not the protesters met with tear gas and rubber bullets as they took to the streets to protest Floyd’s death, and so many others — groups derided as “THUGS” by a president who has publicly encouraged police brutality. Even as that same president has expressed admiration for the menacing white men who claim that pandemic precautions somehow amount to tyranny, who walk into a state capitol brandishing the weaponry of war and face no consequences, who shout abuse right into the faces of police officers and are met with quiet patience.
“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” the president tweeted of the protesters in Minneapolis, his words echoing those of a notorious Miami police chief who added fuel to the civil unrest that gripped that city, and so many others, in the late 1960s.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, the saying goes. The gut-wrenching repetitions are piling up, in Minneapolis and in cities across the country, where it is starting to look and feel like 1968, the threadbare fabric that holds our republic together shredding yet again.
We didn’t mend it then. Or after LA. Or Ferguson. Can we do it now?
“I can’t breathe” Eric Garner said, as a Staten Island police officer put him in a chokehold in 2014. We learned nothing from Garner’s death, for which no one was indicted — or from the many others deaths in police custody between then and now. Peaceful protest doesn’t work, as Colin Kaepernick’s football career can attest. More confrontational protest doesn’t do it either, as the unrest that followed Garner’s and others made clear.
How much footage of Black Americans being murdered do we have to see before we recognize brutality against them is not a bug of the system, but a built-in and seemingly ineradicable feature?
Actually, we do recognize it for what it is; we just don’t fix it. Some even weaponize it: Amy Cooper deployed it against Christian Cooper in Central Park last week, summoning a howitzer to an inconsequential dispute over leashing her benighted cocker spaniel.
These ugly realities of American life snuff out the lifted lamp of the Emma Lazarus poem, slamming shut a golden door that was always more wish than truth.
And now a crushing pandemic is laid upon those realities, one that leaves its victims unable to draw breath. Predictably, the coronavirus that has killed more than 100,000 in this country so far has fallen disproportionately on Black and brown people, more likely to have jobs that expose them to risk, less likely to have a cushion against financial catastrophe, and with poorer access to adequate health care.
“I can’t breathe,” Rana Zoe Mungin told an EMT, who didn’t believe her. The Brooklyn middle school teacher, at the mercy of a health system with demonstrable biases against people of color, had to make several visits to the hospital, showing severe symptoms of the coronavirus, before she could get the treatment that was her right. She died in April.
And now thousands of protesters have streamed into the streets, some of them crowding together in cities where infections continue to rise, endangering their own breath to try to make this country acknowledge George Floyd’s right to his.
None of this had to happen. America is on fire today because voters wanted to burn it all down four years ago. Well, this is what that looks like: A president whose political survival depends on his ability to divide us; who, rather than using his power to prevent tens of thousands of deaths in a pandemic, dumps gasoline on the pyre; whose speech is so toxic that even Twitter has lurched into action, making a laughably late attempt to tamp down the conflagration.
Too many of us still refuse to feel those flames — still confident, against mounting evidence to the contrary, that others will be the ones to choke.