This essay by Gail Lipsitz first appeared in the August 2020 issue of JMORE Living.
“I can’t breathe!”
The desperate cry of George Floyd, handcuffed, flat on the ground, pleading for his life as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for an excruciating 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Two other policemen aided and abetted the killing by holding down Floyd’s legs, while a fourth stood by, just watching the event unfold and trying to shoo away onlookers begging the officers to stop.
The extinguishing of Floyd’s life by suffocation happened on May 25. Over and over, we have watched the video of this brutal murder, captured by a 17-year-old witness.
It is seared into our eyes, minds and hearts. To me, the most appalling and haunting image is the expression on Chauvin’s face as he is executing a helpless human being in cold blood. He calmly stares directly at the camera with deliberate, brazen defiance, exerting — even exulting — in his power, knowing and owning exactly what he is doing.
“I can’t breathe!”
A nightmare echo of those same words, the dying plea of Eric Garner, another black man whose death was filmed by a witness. Garner was killed on July 17, 2014, by a white policeman, Daniel Pantaleo, who put him in a chokehold, aided by other officers, until Garner expired — literally breathed out his last breath.
Neither Eric Garner nor George Floyd was endangering the police. Neither committed an act that in any way could justify the immediate violent actions of the officers who caused their deaths by using forms of force banned by their respective police departments, and that should be universally banned.
“I can’t breathe” has become the rallying cry for worldwide protests against police brutality, particularly as used against people of color. To African-Americans, the image of a white man kneeling on a black man’s neck is a potent symbol of their subjugation and dehumanization, from slavery to segregation to the prejudice, obstacles and mistreatment still holding them down and impeding their progress in this country today.
Bodies are piling up. Videos of people of color being pursued and shot by police and civilians — even in their own homes — are becoming an almost daily occurrence, and those are only the ones that have been widely seen. How many more have been covered up?
How many perpetrators of racist attacks have never been brought to justice? When will people of color, especially young black men, be able to walk out of their homes into society without carrying the burden of hyper-caution and fear of police officers — who are supposed to protect us — and the many white people who automatically judge, suspect and hate them?
How many of us perpetuate racism by harboring uncomfortable and hostile feelings toward people who look different from us? It’s time to turn the camera around and take a selfie, to take a good look at our own attitudes and actions, words and inaction.
I have been thinking about how we usually take breathing for granted. We are not even conscious of our breath unless we are exercising, meditating, affected by fear or another strong emotion. On the other hand, people who have medical conditions like asthma, COPD, black lung disease or congestive heart failure are very aware because they sometimes struggle to breathe.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, we know that shortness of breath is a danger sign. The virus can progress so fast that the only way to save a life is by putting a patient in respiratory distress on a ventilator.
As the number of cases rose steeply in the early weeks, we saw shortages of respirators and ventilators, forcing doctors to have to choose between who live and who would not. COVID-19 has caused many of us to realize just how fragile life is and how vital and precious our ability to breathe.
During a recent Shabbat, a time set aside weekly for slowing down and “catching our breath,” I became acutely aware during the morning service of how often the word “breath” is mentioned in our prayers. Psalm 150 ends with the words, “Kol ha’Neshama t’hallel Yah,” “Let every breath be praise of God.”
“Neshama” is often translated as “soul,” but its fundamental meaning is breath. In the Bible, this word describes how God created the first human being:
“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life (nishmat chayim), and man became a living being” (B’reishit, Genesis 2:7). Breath and life are inextricably linked.
A few pages after Psalm 150 comes one of my favorite prayers, “Nishmat kol chai t’varech et Shimcha, HaShem Elokeynu,” “The soul [literally, the breath] of all that lives praises Your name …”
“Breath” seems like the more fitting word here, since this prayer goes on to describe, in poetic hyperbole, how we express our praise of God with our mouths, tongues and lips.
“I can’t breathe!” These words are an urgent wake-up call to action, a call that millions around the world are hearing and responding to in this moment. This passage from Nishmat kol chai tells us what work we need to do now, and for however long it takes to achieve.
None of us can breathe easy until all of us can breathe freely.
A Pikesville resident, Gail Lipsitz is a former marketing coordinator at Jewish Community Services and author of “Practical Parenting: A Jewish Perspective” (Ktav).