A black painted stencil of "Black Lives Matter," along with the portrait of a black man, are painted onto the concrete pedestal of the Robert E Lee statue in RVA. The man looks like Martin Luther King, Jr or possibly Ahmaud Arbery. The paint behind the stencil is red and splotchy, like an exploded paint ball. Behind the red splotches is illegible graffiti writing, expressing anger and rage over the death of George Floyd and police brutality in general.

A Year of Trying to Breathe

I was listening to a podcast in the car yesterday. I’m behind on my podcasts, and this one was from 2020. I had to stop and see when specifically in 2020 it was published. Depending on the month, the story took on a very different context.

You can mark life up by referencing big events. 9/11, for example, was a global, life-changing event that affected all of us, even those who were not born when it happened. It caused a chain of events that changed the way we all see the world, and how we interact with it. We don’t get these big events very often, typically. But 2020 had a few.

March 2020 was when the US shut down, and when we seem to mark the “start” of Covid, even though Covid started in 2019 (hence the Covid-19 name). That was a big milestone for all of us, and it has affected our lives tremendously, obviously. We all know that Covid is the sickness associated with how well you breathe.

May 25, 2020 is another big mark. Prior to this day we were all pretty wrapped up in laying low, wearing masks, distancing and eyeing each other with suspicion whenever someone coughed in public. On May 25, though, the world changed again. Just two months into the pandemic marathon that we started as a sprint. Mr Floyd’s murder sparked an outrage that changed the landscape again. He couldn’t breathe, he said.

Mr Floyd’s murder was not the only murder that happened in 2020. Breonna and Ahmaud were both killed in 2020, but their deaths did not spark the same amount of fire in the bellies of protestors prior to May 25. Neither did the deaths of the 471 other people who died at the hands of police in 2020 before George (or even the 6 other people who died the same day as George). So why was George’s death such a linchpin to demanding change?

I have to think it was the way he said he couldn’t breathe. He was there on video, telling us all he couldn’t breathe. For two months, we had watched in horror as people got sick and passed away from not being able to breathe. We all huddled in our homes (if we were lucky enough to be non-essential) worried about not being able to breathe, but ultimately not being able to do much about it. And then we were presented with this man telling us he couldn’t breathe. And this was something we could something about. George wasn’t killed by an unknown, scary disease. He was killed by another man. A man who was supposed to protect and serve, who had authority and power over the average person. And the average people rose in outrage against the force that wouldn’t allow George to breathe.

You know the rest of this story. You have the context. Everything that has happened since May 25, 2020, has been connected to, caused by, or created in a world polarized by the killing of Mr George Floyd. It’s been a long year. Vaccines are now paving the way for us to be able to breathe a little easier. But that doesn’t mean we should stop demanding change, or working to be better. We still need to dismantle the parts of our society that continue to oppress, to listen to those who say they can’t breathe. To help make the world a place where we can all breathe a little easier together.

I wrote this blog post last year, and the links in it are still relevant. We can still work to educate ourselves and the people in our sphere of influence (hello parents). We can notice the ways in which some of us can breathe better than others. And we can work to make it easier for those around us to breathe more freely.

A black woman wearing a hat, sunglasses, and mask, sits on the concrete pedestal of the Robert E Lee statue in Richmond with her fist raised. She is holding a black sign with white lettering that says "I Can't Breathe." She is posing for a photo from a different camera. The concrete pedestal is covered in graffiti expressing anger over police brutality.