I CAN’T BREATHE (NOW HEAR THIS newsletter, June 2020)

George Floyd, echoing Eric Garner in 2014, gasped “I can’t breathe” as a Minneapolis police officer pinned his neck to the pavement with his knee, blocking his windpipe and blood vessels, calmly killing him before a crowd of onlookers whose iPhone cameras were trained on him. Millions have now seen those videos. Millions can’t breathe. Signs at Floyd’s street-corner memorial display the phrase that has come to symbolize the literally murderous racism that has sickened our nation to the breaking point. Floyd said it, but it has become personal to millions.

   Over 110,000 coronavirus patients have felt “I can’t breathe” before their tragic deaths, 110,000 gone in three months. The president who said the virus would “disappear like magic” refused to activate the federal government in the worst public health crisis in a hundred years. His incompetence, and that of his toady VP and his son-in-law and his appalling Attorney General and the rest of his political appointees who congratulate themselves on tending the ongoing disaster, goes unabated. For the last three weeks, we have hardly heard a peep from the nation’s principal voice of sanity on the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, presumably because he is horrified by the “opening up” of states that have not even met the Administration’s own (former?) standards necessary for gradual resumption of economic activities. He’s no doubt being pressured into silence.

   But Covid-19 is such old news, even as (majority African American and physically compromised) fellow citizens continue to sicken and die. The president foments other distractions, bringing the nation to the brink of bloody revolution. He deploys the US military against peacefully assembled American citizens so that he can walk to a church and hold up a Bible for a photo-op. “I am your law and order president,” he trumpets, encouraging the stepped-up use of all the trappings of military force against peaceful demonstrators who demand that America live up to its Constitution. Never has the country witnessed a leader so destructive and so uninterested in American values. Insight and empathy, qualities a true leader would marshal to soothe the nation’s agony and rage, are nowhere to be seen.

  The murder of George Floyd reminds America that driving while black, selling cigarettes on a street corner while black, jogging while black, sleeping in your own home while black, or wearing a hoodie and eating Skittles while black are activities that can cost your life. This awful truth has now sunk in deeply into most white readers’ understanding, but it bears repeating. 

  The tear gas and pepper spray so plentifully deployed in the final days of May and into June are directed at protesters and journalists, black and white, young and old. On-air gasping and coughing brings home to the rest of us what it’s like when you can’t breathe. 

   Why has mass outrage for Floyd’s killing gone not only national but international this time, even in the middle of a pandemic? (1) This time there is nothing to lose. Many of those out in the streets belong to the ranks of the forty million unemployed. (2) Every municipality has its own George Floyd stories by now. In Kitsap, Stonechild Chiefstick was killed by cops in the middle of Poulsbo’s Fourth of July fireworks last summer as families watched in horror, and no one has been prosecuted for it. (3) This time America has no Obama or Bush now to offer comfort and condolence, feel our pain, inspire us to strive for true equality. These were always pretty empty words from presidents, but #45 has peeled away the veneer and talks instead about dominating and more shooting. 

  The quality of anger has changed: it’s more nihilistic, less patriotic. This time white people are joining in the groundswell, one of the hopeful things about this time. Youth is leading the way, as they have begun to do with the climate crisis. 


   In a different kind of time—geologic time, earth time, but also a time that’s running out—“I can’t breathe” is what the forests are saying as well. Private lumber interests and the state of Washington itself are mowing down trees at alarming rates, and then spraying what’s left with toxic chemicals. The trees can’t breathe. The bugs can’t breathe. The orcas can’t breathe. The bees, worms, mushrooms, and birds can’t breathe. It seems that all these systems—the public health system, the justice system, the economic system (all which exploit and menace people of color), and the ecosystem—have reached a tipping point. There is no time left to casually discuss the future. It is in the interests of the powerful to slow things down, although they, too, will perish if the country fails.

   A KEC member writes: 

   “Who is protecting the forests? Not Hilary Franz (WA State’s Land Commissioner) and the state’s Board and Department of Natural Resources. Each month they clearcut or auction off vast swaths of forests across Washington state. Each month they approve permits for corporations to clearcut hundreds and thousands of acres and then poison them in order to maximize future private profits. Very little has changed since the early days of colonization, land theft, and industrialization. The decimation of Native people and cultures continues apace.

   Commissioner Franz (up for re-election) sent an email June 1 declaring her solidarity and readiness to address systemic racism and asks what it will take to bring change and racial justice to our country. An obvious place for her to start would be by honoring treaties and listening to Native voices, including frontline protectors and advocates in WA state. Listening is only the beginning, though. 

   The people and the environment need meaningful action based on indigenous wisdom and the reality of climate crisis, not more hollow campaign rhetoric.


America’s original sin was the genocide of indigenous people, land theft, and theft of human beings from Africa based on the barbaric proposition that people can be owned. The other sin we finally recognize: American capitalism has acted on the proposition that nature can be owned, dominated, sold, and destroyed at will. 

   The forests are the Earth’s lungs. Without them, we can’t breathe.