Parker J. Palmer
“I CAN’T BREATHE.” Those words give voice to the terror that has haunted black Americans since the founding of this country. They can also serve as a tragic tag for a political-cultural era in which life has been choked out of so many and so much.
“I can’t breathe” were the dying words of a black man named George Floyd, as a police officer kept a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, while Floyd lay handcuffed on the ground. They are words that thousands of lynching victims in this country might have said as they died, words that freedom-seekers now living in limbo south of our border could say as they watch their dreams and sometimes their children die. All of this is rooted in the racism that American “leaders” have long exploited as a path to power, to which too many whites have given silent assent. “I can’t breathe” might have been the dying words of the 100,000 + American victims of COVID-19 just before they were intubated, deaths that have hit communities of color the hardest. Fewer would have died if our “leaders” valued science above ideology, human life above money and power, and the public interest above their own. Their knees were pressed down on those throats.
“I can’t breath” represents a challenge to the moral credentials of white people—if we fail to speak and act against the racist forces that help fuel #45’s war on democracy. Some of us have been “gasping for breath” since the advance man for birtherism ran for president, polluting the air we breathe with his racism and his taste for fascism. (I do not use the “F-word” lightly, but with the gravity of a student of history. For evidence, see https://tinyurl.com/y5l8hnsj, a piece I wrote for On Being eight months before the 2016 election.)
In the wake of a horrifying week in America, what can we do? If you or I walked down the street and heard a stranger say, “I can’t breathe,” we’d dial 911. We’d stay with the stranger until help arrived and do anything we could, the Heimlich maneuver, or CPR, or a hand to hold. We would NOT walk on by as if nothing were happening. Please, let’s not walk by now. And let’s not indulge the self-serving delusion that there’s nothing we can do. For example…
Alone or with your friends, study articles like “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice” at https://tinyurl.com/y7ou7rkd, and act on one or more of the suggestions there.
Use Facebook and other social media to let folks in your network know where you stand. What’s worse, being “un-friended” or failing to take a clear stand on the morally imperative issues of our time?
Speak to family and friends who support racist words and actions, however indirectly. Tell them that you find it hard to breathe in that space. Then take a deep breath, and tell them what you value. Speak the truth with love, but speak the truth.
If you belong to a faith community whose leaders have ignored or even supported the inhumanity so evident in our politics right now, speak up. Tell them that you need to hear muscular love, truth, and justice preached and practiced, not soothing piosity or faithless complicity.
When November arrives, vote for candidates who offer something better than the tragedy we’re living right now, no matter your marginal reservations. Encourage others to do the same. “When you govern with lies, the ballots will fly. Lead without soul, and we’ll defeat you at the polls.”
There’s much we can do. It starts with listening to all who are crying, “I can’t breathe.” Souls—theirs, ours, and and our country’s—depend on us hearing and responding in every way we can.