‘I can’t breathe!’ These were the terrified and terrifying words of George Floyd, as he was pinned to the ground by a white policeman in an illegal act of police violence and extra-judicial murder in Minnesota just about two weeks ago. The video of Floyd’s torture and murder has stirred agony and outrage amongst the American community and beyond. This cruel act reminds us of Eric Garner, a black man in Staten Island who died on a sidewalk in 2014 after a police officer had put him in a choke-hold while arresting him. Garner kept yelling that he couldn’t breathe, but the officer never relented. The sight of Police officer Derek Chauvin pinning Floyd to the ground, with his knee to the back of Floyd’s throat, despite the pleas of the crowd and of Floyd himself, frames a life, a death and a system in the United States, and globally, where it is very obvious that the age-long display that black lives don’t matter remains fresh in the psyche and the behaviour of members of the police force.
I can’t breathe! These words also speak to the disproportionate number of Black and Minority Ethnic victims of COVID-19, in the UK, the US and beyond. In the UK, Black people are more than four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than White people, according to stark official figures exposing a dramatic divergence on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in England and Wales.
From the Black Lives Matters website, we read of the situation in the USA:
Now, during a global pandemic, the impact of this bias is clearer than ever. This virus is devastating to us. We are the essential workers who keep the country going; we are the mail carriers, delivery personnel, transportation providers, and hospital workers. We cannot just #stayhome. Yet, we represent the vast majority of COVID-related deaths in Chicago, Louisiana, and Michigan — Black people are dying at rates that are two and three times our population share. We have never had access to adequate healthcare in our communities, and many of us don’t even know we have the pre-existing conditions (that) the coronavirus feeds on. Our children historically suffer in our education system and are now at risk of falling further behind due to a lack of access to virtual education programs. https://blacklivesmatter.com/black-lives-matter-global-network-responses-to-covid-19-ethnicity-data/
COVID-19 reveals an underclass to our societies all around the world. We find them at the front lines of our health care, social care, domestic, construction and transport services, in overcrowded migrant workers’ dormitories, or on the roadsides, pushed out from the places they used to work, made unemployed without care or compassion. This social underclass is simultaneously created and reviled by the dominant economic and political powers of our day. Black and minority ethnic communities, as well as the migrant workers, are treated as cheap and disposable labour, frequently denied equal rights, wages and dignity.
COVID-19 reveals the pandemic of inequality that is all around us. These statistics and realities frame lives, deaths and a system. We live within the very hostile context of two strikingly different worlds – the world of the privileged and that of the underprivileged, the world of the whites and that of the blacks and browns, the world of the haves and that of the haves not. These two worlds are the outcome of entrenched racism, which fuels systemic violence against black people and ethnic minorities, perpetuates injustices and breeds poverty.
I can’t breathe! This desperate cry for help, unheeded, is cause for outrage a vexation of spirit and, indeed, the protest we see in the US and around the world. We must rise up against this pandemic of injustice and the racism and legacies of slavery which underpin it.
We, the Christian community, have just observed the season of Pentecost when we celebrated how the Spirit of God is breathed out anew upon the disciples. This act of breathing, upon the grieving disciples, symbolises a new creation, a breaking out of new life in the midst of death, depression and despair. And when God’s Spirit is poured out, she comes inviting God’s people to breathe deeply of the fresh wind of God’s new day so that we can witness to God’s vision of peace-filled community. We must hold on to these prophetic Pentecostal words of Ezekiel for George Floyd and for us all. They are our mandate as Christian communities, witnessing to evil and injustice with the power and outrage of love.
‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ (Ezekiel 37:9, NRSV)
Racism and the unjust systems that feed it, at the death and destruction of those choked by its ‘knees on their necks’, may be likened to the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision. In this valley of death, we hear the voice of God beckoning those being choked to break loose from the clutches of those knees, inhale the life-giving breath of God and declare an end to death and an awakening to life. This is our invitation, to confront these unjust systems, rise up against them, expose them to transform them until all can breathe again.