I Can’t Breathe: A Socially Distanced Protest

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Author: Asad El Malik, PhD candidate in Intercultural Studies (Columbia International University – USA). You can contact Asad at asadelmalik@gmail.com

Field site: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States.

Protesters in New Orleans on 2 June 2020. Photo Credit: Abdul Aziz

On May 25th, an African American man, named George Floyd, in Minnesota became the latest in a long list of African Americans to be killed by American law enforcement. In a nearly nine-minute video, Officer Derek Chauvin can be seen kneeling on the neck of Floyd, who repeats “please, I can’t breathe”.  At a particularly heartbreaking moment, Floyd calls out to his deceased mother “Mama, I am through.” Moments later, his body went limp. George Floyd died handcuffed, face down on the pavement. His death was captured on video and broadcasted to millions via social media.

Floyd’s last words came with a peculiar eeriness, as they were the same words repeated by Eric Garner, another African American man choked to death by a New York City law enforcement officer in 2014. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe”, were branded on T-shirts and protest signs. His words even invoked a response from supporters of the New York Police Department, who wore shirts that read “I can breathe”.

Much like the aftermath of Garner’s death, in the days since Floyd’s murder, the United States has been engulfed in nationwide protests. There have been demonstrations in each of the fifty states and over 300 total.  The vast majority of the protests have been peaceful, but quite a few have involved riots, destruction of property, and even the storming of the Treasury Department in Washington DC.

Complicating the narrative even more is the underlying presence of COVID-19, which is still devastating various communities across the country. The disease has had a particularly devastating effect on African Americans, as they account for a disproportionate amount of deaths resulting from COVID-19.  The tragic irony of African Americans protesting while shouting “I can’t breathe” and simultaneously dying, disproportionately, from a respiratory illness is glaring.

New Orleans Protesters

Posted to Take’em Down NOLA’s Facebook page

On a warm Saturday afternoon in New Orleans, a city that still honors slaveholders with monuments, hundreds of people gather near City Hall, to protest the death of George Floyd. The crowd is a sea of different hues, ages, and sexual orientations. One shirtless Asian American man passes my area with the words “black lives matter” written in marker on his chest and the words “Asian Americans for black lives” on his back. Protest signs read “Trans lives for black lives”, “I am an ally”, “stop police killings” and “justice for George”.  A spirit of determination is in the air…it is written on the faces of participants and it is in the sounds of their voices as they shout “BLACK LIVES MATTER”.  “Angel”, a tall slender black woman with Asian features, emerges from the crowd with a microphone in hand. “We are here today for George…for Ahmaud Aubrey…for Breonna Taylor” she tells the crowd that responds with enthusiastic cheers.

The event is organized by a group called ‘Take’em Down NOLA’, which formed to protest Confederate-era monuments that were prominently displayed throughout the city of New Orleans. On the group’s Facebook invite are posted these words:

Join Take ‘Em Down NOLA and the New Orleans Workers Group for a socially distanced solidarity demonstration and march starting in Duncan Plaza across from City Hall. We stand in solidarity with the uprisings in Minneapolis and all who stand against white supremacist violence. Join us! We do this for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Modesto Reyes, and all others who have been murdered by the police. We do this for ourselves and our future! LET’S RISE UP!!! | NOTE: We will be practicing physical distancing and mask wearing.

Photo Credit: Abdul Aziz

With COVID-19 being an ever-present concern, Angel reminds the crowd to “please be mindful to wear your masks and to keep your distance.” The protesters are standing with a significant distance between each person and groups of people. The distance may not be the CDC’s recommended six feet but, certainly enough room between each person that I can easily navigate from the back of the crowd to the front.

Angel asks for four volunteers from the crowd. A white woman steps forward…then a black woman…then another…and then a black man. Angel positions them in a horizontal line and asks them to extend their hands until their fingertips touch. They oblige. Angel then instructs them to increase the distance between each of them. “This is the distance we need to maintain as we march,” she says.

As the protesters make their way to the street, the integrity of the lines are lost, but the distance is still kept.  Some protesters break away from the crowd and remove their masks to take a sip of water or to smoke a cigarette. Others raise their camera phones high in the air to capture the massive length of the crowd and their voices chanting the names of Floyd, Taylor and others.

Photo Credit: Abdul Aziz

The crowd makes its way to Canal Street, a main thoroughfare in New Orleans. Drivers stop their cars and one raises his fist out of this window in solidarity. Another begins to honk his horn in unisons with the rhythms of the protesters’ chants. “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” The crowd yells in a call and response fashion. “Excuse me, do you need a mask?” asks a woman with a box of homemade face protection. “No thank you, I have one”, I respond as I point to the mask hanging from my neck. “Ok baby, put it on, you don’t wanna get sick” she replies. Another reminder that there are two wars going and both, in one way or the other, are a fight to breathe.