The Amazon rainforest, spread over 2.1 million square miles, is dubbed as the "lungs of the planet" as it produces 20 percent of the oxygen in our planet's atmosphere. In August 2019, thousands of fiery infernos raged through the forest, and the resultant fuming smokes blocked the sun. Even from Sao Paolo, a city that was 2,000 miles away from the forest fire, the sun could not be seen. The lungs of the world was on fire, and the earth was being suffocated by the carbon-dioxide it produced.
In December, China reported the outbreak of a pneumonia with unknown cause to the World Health Organization. The clinical signs and symptoms include patients having breathing difficulty, with their chest radiographs showing invasive lesions of both lungs. The breathing problem became a global phenomenon, and morphed into a pandemic that is being experienced by 213 countries and territories of the world. The populace of the world are suffocating and gasping for breath. One possible cause for the outbreak is human encroachment on nature, making wild animals come in contact with humans. We are being exposed to diseases of the animal kingdom against which we have no immunity.
But there is one silver lining. The lockdown and immobility due to coronavirus pandemic has stopped the world from consuming fossil fuel and reduced the amount of CO2 emissions. As a result the ozone layer above Antarctica has started showing signs of recovery. Mother earth has her own way of healing. The jet streams in the southern hemisphere are patching up the ozone hole. Science Alert reports, "Before the turn of the century, ozone depletion had been driving the southern jet stream further south than usual. This ended up changing rainfall patterns, and potentially ocean currents as well."
Now we are waking up to a wound of a different kind. A wound that makes us grasp for breath. A wound that has caused others to breathe to suggest that they are alive.
On May 25, a white police officer in Minnesota pressed his knee to a detainee George Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes. Floyd was allegedly guilty of handing in a fake USD 20 bill in a store. Police made him lie face down with his hands handcuffed, with one officer mounting pressure on his neck that eventually strangled him to death. Floyd's last words were, "I can't breathe!" America is burning in protest, reverberating, "Black Lives Matter." The protesters are highlighting one vital sign of the living: breathing.
The suffocation of George Floyd is a stark reminder of the 2014 killing of Eric Garner. A NYPD officer used a banned technique of chokehold while detaining Garner for selling loose cigarettes. An asthmatic Garner died, and his last words were, "I can't breathe."
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, amid the fear of Covid-19 contamination, to protest the killing of a man whose death unfolded before their eyes. "I can't breathe" has once again become a rallying cry of protest. It seems the Civil Rights movement participated in by all marginalised racial groups is an unfinished project.
The Black Power movement in the 1960s was inspired by the Algerian French intellectual Franz Fanon (1925-1961), whose The Wretched of the Earth became a revolutionary bible for them. Fanon has suddenly become more relevant than ever. He wrote in Black Skin, White Mask, "When we revolt it's not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe."
George Floyd and Eric Garner's last words find strange echoes in Fanon's conception of revolution's causal connection with breathing. Their dying words, on the surface, appear to be a literal plea for help as they struggled for their last breaths with the police on their back. At the same time, they constitute a Fanonian expression of Black experience of racism in the United States. I can't breathe is a ventilation of the corporeal, systematic and daily violence imposed on Black bodies. And now breathing is being used as a strategic counter response.
In Black Skin, White Masks Fanon uses breathing as part of his vision of a new humanism. In this book Fanon talks about the inferiority complex suffered by a racially subjugated group or a colonised entity. To overcome this psychological barrier, colonised subjects must realise that their breath and heart beats "are the same as those of the coloniser."
Later in his book A Dying Colonialism, Fanon furthers the notion of breathing (or, rather, of non-breathing) by devising a new term, "combat breathing." Fanon writes, "There is not occupation of territory, on the one hand, and independence of persons on the other. It is the country as a whole, its history, its daily pulsation that are contested, disfigured, in the hope of a final destruction. Under these conditions, the individual's breathing is an observed, an occupied breathing. It is a combat breathing. From this point on, the real values of the occupied quickly tend to acquire a clandestine form of existence. In the presence of the occupier, the occupied learns to dissemble, to resort to trickery."
The protest is a sign of a fissure that lacerates the lungs of America. The protesting bodies are longing for a breathable atmosphere. It is informed by a desire to wiggle out of the knees of the oppressors. It is a protest to remind all that breathing is essential for both the individual body and the collective body. Fanon quotes Aime Cesaire who compares breaths with consciousness to argue for a world where minds are permeable to diverse visions of the world: "porous to all the breaths of the world". The revolt then is a similar call of the living, it is the sign of taking a stand, "quite simply…because it became impossible…to breathe, in more than one sense of the word" (Black Skin, White Mask).
It is no surprise that the pro-establishment media is focusing on the looting and the disorder that has ensued. The riot rhetoric has made the president of the US present himself as an avatar of Law and Order against the opportunists and the downtrodden. Instead of getting into the root cause of the riot, the POTUS has added fuel to the fire by reminding his supporters of the second amendments that allows US citizens to take up arms in self-defence.
I was listening to Kareem Abdul Jabbar on CNN recently. The basketball star used an analogy to explain race relations in America. Racism is like dust in the wind; you get choked—but you don't complain. But once light shines on the air, you get to see those particles choking you. Events like the murder of Eric Garner and George Floyd throw light on the invisible dusts that carry the memory of the sweated labour of slavery. The dusts have never settled. Jabbar uses another metaphor of a bus to explain the race issue. People at the back feel the fume and jerks, while others sitting in the front seats have no reason to complain as the bus is wheeling along without any apparent obstacles. The riot has brought the fumes forward, and the country is feeling the burn.
Let me wrap up with an anecdote shared by Taslima Nasrin in one of her earlier books. She once saw her younger brother pinning a lizard with a pencil. The creature was struggling to wrestle away. Her brother said, "Have you seen bubu, the more I press, the more it dances."
The people who are on the streets are in a combat breathing. They are not dancing, they are expressing their pain and anger. They are saying, enough is enough. The police officer who killed Floyd is a case of a bad tooth; but a single bad tooth is connected to the entire nervous system of a country. If a tooth aches, the whole body aches. If a forest burns, the whole earth gets affected. If a forest is encroached upon, it hits back sending its army of viruses. Nature is revolting, and it will keep on revolting until equilibrium is restored. It is within human nature to seek for the same balance in life. A system that privileges one skin colour over the other is not a fair system. The breath of a white man is the same as the breath of a black or brown man. Black lives matter, because human lives matter.
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.