Breathless in America

On the way to his death, George Floyd repeated “I can’t breathe.” He couldn’t. He was being suffocated by the full weight of a police officer pressed upon his neck.

Over the past several months, suffocation has become an American meme; indeed, it is a collective American nightmare. Before the murder of George Floyd, the nation began to be engulfed in images of coronavirus’s theft of breath. Reminiscent of the anti-smoking ads of decades ago, images of damaged lungs are everywhere.

Meanwhile, the availability or absence of ventilators—breathing machines—has become everyday news. So, also, stories about those who recovered from the virus without a ventilator, but who are still profoundly short of breath. They can barely walk across a room.

It is as though much of the country has been thrown overboard, struggling to remain afloat. We fear becoming another one of the drowned. Even those opposed to mandated masks are obsessed with their “freedom to breathe.”

I don’t know whether the wider preoccupation with being suffocated impacted the intensity of the reaction to the killing of George Floyd.  If so, it would be one of several factors, including direct refutation of decades of injustice.  Still, awash in other images of being choked to death, the repeated chants of “I can’t breathe” may also draw on a deeper well.

Indeed, it may go further.  Since the 2016 election, many Americans have been holding their breath.  Throughout the first three years of Trump’s term, we hoped that nothing too bad, too serious, too catastrophic would happen.  That had been our plan to get through the escalating madness.  We tried to stay calm.  To keep breathing.  And, to whatever extent, to hold our tongues.  Many of us wondered why we weren’t in the streets.  It didn’t matter.  We weren’t in the streets.

And then, of course, the bad, the serious, the most catastrophic did happen.  The pandemic happened.  The corruption, incompetence, and viciousness of the Trump administration and its enablers became impossible to evade.  So also their direct threat—and indifference–to American life and lives.  We could no longer hold our breath because there was no longer anything to hold out for.  There is only escalating disaster.  They have us by the neck, they know it, and we know it.

Nevertheless, what happened after George Floyd’s murder may still be a passing moment.  As in many authoritarian regimes, people’s real thoughts are typically expressed in private, in ironic asides, in suggestive jests.  Almost certainly, there has never been a time in American history when so many secretly fantasize about what the army would do in circumstances and about accidents that could happen.  We have many Rubinstein’s, “mad jesters” of the ghetto. Still, the breathtaking reality is that, outwardly, we wear a different kind of mask concealing what is darkest on our minds and in our hearts..

It is summertime in America, but the living is not easy.  “I can’t breathe” continues to be our reality.  The death of George Floyd created a chance to say it, even scream it, out loud.  For black lives, first.  But, more privately, for a great many other suffocating Americans as well.

On this Independence season, we ourselves are huddled masses, gagging and gagged.

About the Author
Henry (Hank) Greenspan is a psychologist and playwright at the University of Michigan who has been interviewing, teaching, and writing about the Holocaust and its survivors since the 1970s.
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