I can’t breathe

Published: 6/20/2020 11:42:04 AM

I arrived at the Iron Bridge in Shelburne Falls on June 6 at about 10:40 a.m. full of anxiety about what might happen at this rally. I was not part of planning it, but I did help do outreach and I had asked several people to do peacekeeping to deal with any hecklers or angry motorists. I had heard about some inappropriate comments and behavior in Shelburne Falls while Sunny and her biracial daughter stood on the corner with “Black Lives Matter” signs.

I’d passed at least 50 people on the Buckland side and then, as I was mid-bridge, a large group came up from the Shelburne side of the bridge with Joey Kotright in the lead — shouting: “Say his name” “George Floyd” “Say His Name” “George Floyd.” They all walked to the center of the bridge and stopped right across from where I was standing.

Joey explained what he was doing. He told us how he had planned to lie down on the bridge for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. But he had done a dry run earlier in the week and realized he could not sustain that kind of action for that kind of time. He talked of the injury it caused to his body and his soul just in thinking about it. And he didn’t want to put any of us through that either.

At the same time, the Floyd family had asked that people not dramatize this ugly event. So Joey said to us, I will kneel for 3½ minutes, crying out “I can’t breathe” and then we will sit in silence. He began “I can’t breathe” and all the people, now down on their knees too, including Joey’s two sons kneeling right behind him, shouted out “I can’t breathe.” It went on and on. “Join me in saying ‘I can’t breathe’ if you really can’t breathe in these conditions,” Joey had said.

I feel like the whole country is smothering, and so we are all having trouble breathing whether due to a virus or fear, but I couldn’t shout anything. I just began to cry, my whole body shaking and tears flowing behind my mask. I imaged that horrible scene on the streets of Minneapolis. The image of this anonymous man’s head being held in place by someone’s knee. Apparently, when one officer is chief, no other officers will correct him. They have to defend his actions.

I could hear George Floyd crying. It wasn’t loud like our cries on the bridge; it was more like a quiet sob. I can’t breathe, man. Until he really couldn’t and they carried him off to die.

Is there anything we can do? Is there any way we can begin to understand the pain and fear and pride of our black kin? Can we recognize this as a modern day lynching? Can we see mass incarceration as a modern day Jim Crow?

These issues — racial inequality and police brutality — are always in the hearts and minds of our brothers and sisters of color. So, if things are going to change, they have to reverberate in the minds and hearts of white people. We cannot forget; we need to keep asking questions; we need to listen; we need to learn the real United States history and hear all the stories that have not been told. We need to put our bodies where our principles reside. We need to talk to other white people about white supremacy and white privilege. We need to fight for racial justice as if our very lives depended on it, for in fact they do.

The Rev. Kate Stevens is a resident of Charlemont.

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