“I Can’t Breathe”
By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC-S (Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor)
I’ve been thinking a lot about George Floyd. His plaintive cry of “I can’t breathe”—when Minnesota policeman Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, with two colleagues restraining his back, resulting in his murder—speaks volumes. It has become emblematic of the state of our world, and particularly of our country, at this moment in history. It has become a rallying cry.
Black Americans have not been able to truly breathe in our culture since their ancestors were brought here as slaves. Even after they were emancipated, and even after the Civil Rights movement, they have been treated as “less than” and have had to compete at a great disadvantage, not only with white Americans but with other ethnic groups. Black Americans frequently come under suspicion when they are simply going about their lives. Young Black men populate our prisons in disproportionate numbers, many for minor drug charges. White men, meanwhile, often walk free for the same offenses. And mistreatment and even murder of Black individuals by the police have gone largely unchecked.
Victims of COVID, as the illness takes hold, also struggle to breathe. The pandemic has been especially cruel to Black Americans and Latinx who, largely due to socio-economic factors, suffer more from co-morbid conditions. Those of us who haven’t fallen ill are struggling to breathe behind masks when we venture out and then metaphorically when we are sequestered in our homes.
And more and more of us are struggling to breathe under the oppressive regime of Donald Trump, a power-hungry narcissist who is incapable of empathy and therefore of functioning as a true, moral leader. He has systematically suffocated our democracy while posing as a “Christian,” most recently by holding a Bible upside down during his ridiculous photo op in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church in DC. This was a publicity stunt for which his crony, the notorious bully, Attorney General William Barr, ordered the troops to use pepper spray and fire rubber bullets at a peaceful group of protestors in order to disperse them.
I am from Memphis. I was in the fifth grade at Idlewild Elementary School, a public school in our modest neighborhood, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. Public schools were integrated. By the time sixth grade rolled around, my fearful parents had enrolled my sister and me in an all-white private girls’ school which they could ill afford. Later, in 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated in my hometown. The city exploded around us and we were locked down under strict curfew. All throughout my teenage years, I argued with my parents about racism and their stance toward “colored people.” I knew by the time I was 15 that I would escape Memphis—the Deep South—and never look back. And at 18, I did.
Now I am a senior citizen, wondering how I can make an impact, besides donating to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Democratic Party and other social justice causes. I want to march with the protestors but I fear for my health. So I am sheltering in place, and I’ve committed myself to finding my mission in this movement. Above all, I am listening.