»I can’t breathe«

An article by the author and publicist Carolin Emcke

[This text has been translated electronically.] Creating an immortal work is certainly a dream that unites artists. But when the content of a work touches a social conflict topic such as racism, then everlasting topicality is certainly not something one wishes for one's work. With the events in the USA, the composition »I can't breathe« by Georg Friedrich Haas, written in 2015, has now once again acquired a startling topicality. The composition was written in memory of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 as a result of police violence. In the introduction to his work, the composer writes: »If my skin were black, I would have to fear the police more than criminals«. With the work, Haas showed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The recent incidents, the murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, again painfully bring to light how deeply racism is anchored in American, but also in our society.

Author and publicist Carolin Emcke also commented on this in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on May 28, 2020, saying, »It is an agonizing repetition.« Emcke was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2016. She is particularly known for her essay »Against Hatred«, in which she comments on racism, fanaticism and hostility towards democracy:

[This text has been translated electronically.] It is all like a horrible re-enactment, an agonizing repetition that reopens the wound that in truth should never have been closed. What did we, who are white, think? That it would stop by itself? What did we, whose everyday life does not include the permanent fear of police violence, hope? That it would be forgotten because we would be spared? Because we don't have black bodies that are racialized, that are blanked out or demonized, that are disregarded and bullied, beaten or killed. This is the old paradox: that the racially projected fear of the black body is socially accepted and constantly reproduced, but the well-founded fear of white police violence of black people so stigmatized remains in the blind spot of that very racism.

»The destroyers are not unprecedentedly evil,« Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in »Between Me and the World«, »but simply people who implement the vagaries of our country, who correctly interpret its heritage and legacy, to this day.«

»I can't breathe«, the words George Floyd squeezed out in Minneapolis on Monday of this week, are the same words Eric Garner spoke in July 2014, »I can't breathe«, not just once or twice, eleven times it burst forth from the asthmatic Garner before he fell silent forever. The words were lifted, quoted, the words »I can't breathe« became the code of a trauma that refers not to a past experience but a constantly renewing one, a trauma triggered again with the identical quote, six years later, George Floyd says »I can't breathe«, I can't breathe, (the first time at minute 0:20 of the ten-minute video, which should only be watched by anyone who still can't imagine a defenseless human being being killed in broad daylight, handcuffed behind his back, without any stealth or inhibition) as he lies in the street, a police officer's knee with all his weight on his neck, »please«, Floyd moans and whimpers, but the cop does not change his position, he continues to squat on the cramped body, after a minute Floyd repeats his desperation, »I can't breathe«, a cop obscured by the police car but presumably also sitting by or on the arrested Floyd says: »What do you want?«, What do you want?, once again, it's 1:06, Floyd says »I can't breathe«, but nothing happens, instead Floyd is told (is this a joke?) to get in the car, »I will«, Floyd replies, adding (as if it's not obvious), »but I can't move«.

It is not apparent from the video what preceded the situation, why the cops confronted Floyd in the first place, whether he had previously refused to get into the car, or whether nothing of the sort had happened before, neither of which can be substantiated from this recording. More and more passers-by gather to intervene, »You've got him on the ground, let him breathe«, no response, an officer stands in the street shielding his colleagues at the car, but even he is not too keen to hide the gruesome scene, »He's bleeding from the nose, let him« (2:00), Floyd utters the same words several more times, »I can't breathe«, but nothing happens, the passers-by demand that the police finally pick him up and put him in the police car, nothing happens, the same officer continues to push with his knee to the back of his neck, the camera wanders around one of the police officers a bit to get a better focus on Floyd, and it is only then that I notice: the officer sitting on Floyd has his hand in his pants pocket, he's sitting there, clearly comfortable and relaxed, as if he's a mere bystander to the murder he himself is about to commit, there's no struggle, no resistance, nothing that required both of his hands, it's apparently enough to deflate a handcuffed man on the ground.

At some point (around minute 4:20 of the video) Floyd stops moving, he's obviously lost consciousness, but that doesn't change anything either, passers-by push and shout, »feel his pulse«, nothing happens, still the knee remains in the neck, minutes pass with repeated attempts to ask for medical help, nothing, when finally an ambulance arrives and a paramedic tries to take the pulse of the unconscious Floyd (the scene doesn't show well), apparently no one unlocks the handcuffs, when last the body is lifted onto the stretcher and taken away, George Floyd's arms are still forced behind his back.

»It is so easy to overlook the pain of the Other«, wrote philosopher Elaine Scarry in »The Difficult Image of the Other«, »that we are even capable of inflicting it, or intensifying it, without it touching us.«

I wish that were so. I wish the pain was just overlooked. Watching this video of the cop choking George Floyd with his hand in his pocket, something else suggests itself: This doesn't look like clueless overlooking, but lustful watching.

At night, the email from my friend Paul, who lives in St.Paul/Minneapolis, reaches me, I happen to have two really close friends* in Minneapolis, both white, Paul writes that on Monday, the day of George Floyd's death, for him it was all about his African American male friends, »I spent hours listening, talking, reading about the anger, the pain, the despair of black friends.« Most felt numb above all. This murder revived all of their own horrific experiences with the police. »All the black people in my circle of friends«, Paul writes, and with him that means rather very educated, successful people, _every single one of them has a whole list of horrendous stories about walking-as-black, driving-as-black, living-as-black.«

Since then, the city has been rocked by protests and looting, with businesses vandalized every night, and fires burning on various blocks in the 3rd Precinct neighborhood. »Looting is wrong, of course«, Paul writes, »and trashing your own neighborhoods is terribly self-destructive - but it's also, unfortunately, so terribly understandable.«

Paul and his husband have stayed mostly indoors for the past few days, not unusual because a pandemic state of emergency has been in effect for weeks anyway; the outbreak of violent protests may have been made a little extra charged by the fact, Paul suspects, that everyone has been locked in all this time. The anger is slowly closing in: a few blocks away, looting probably occurred, but »there's this weird disconnect between what we know is happening and what we're actually seeing.« Meanwhile, parts of the 3rd Precinct neighborhood are on fire, and Paul writes that after first being mostly dejected and distraught over the umpteenth murder of a black man by police, he's now mostly scared about how the national (over)reaction to the riots might turn out.

A particularly haunting story is told by the other friend from Minneapolis, in a sequence of emails she first recounts the grief over all the destroyed and burned out grocery stores that were the sources of food and medicine for many in the neighborhood, »Where will people go now?« she asks. »A pandemic at that?« and then she adds, »it seems that a white St. Paul police officer, in black fatigues with a gas mask over his face started yesterday's vandalism himself«, that sounds like something out of a movie, but what doesn't sound like something out of a movie at this time? A young man had then confronted the odd figure smashing the windows of an auto parts store, she writes »I couldn't have imagined that, which says a lot about my limited perspective« but there was video of the whole sequence. A few emails later, her husband sent me the link; Twitter has since circulated not only this footage, which shows a man in black gear, wearing a gas mask (and also, somewhat unusually for a common looter: carrying a black umbrella), smashing the store's front windows, but also a man addressing him and even asking, »Are you a f.....cop?« By now the alleged instigator is said to have been identified, a name is circulating, various pictures have been juxtaposed of the policeman without and with a mask, an ex-wife is sure she recognises the officer. None of this can be verified remotely or via Twitter, but it's certainly nothing to calm the anger.

A few years ago, I wrote about Eric Garner. It's a whole chapter in »Against Hate.« The more I looked into the story of his death at the time, the racist violence, the look on black bodies, the more I watched the video someone shot of the whole horrific scene at the time, the more I wished Eric Garner wasn't remembered just for those dying words, that »I can't breathe«, those words that always identify him as the victim who was suffocated with a chokehold. I wrote then that I wanted to describe him as someone else, as the Eric Garner who, before the officers attack him, says, »It stops today«, this has to stop. The Eric Garner who just can't take being checked and arrested over and over again, who won't accept his role in this unjust spectacle anymore, the role of a black man who is supposed to humbly accept being humiliated. »This has got to stop«, meaning this very racializing gaze that makes invisible or monstrous, that makes people like Eric Garner or George Floyd still claim to be »danger« although they are already unconscious and handcuffed on the ground.

I sincerely hope that the protests don't override the original violence, I hope that there will be other words written and quoted about George Floyd, and I hope it stops.

On our Digital Stage you can watch the performance »I can't breathe« in memory of Eric Garner, George Floyd and all the other victims of racist violence and systemic oppression!