‘Breathe, Can One?’

As the world comes to a standstill under the dark shadow cast by the Corona virus, the cancer of inequality is spread fast in societies all over the world.

G. N. Devy | June 24, 2020

Breathe, Can One

  India.com

157 years ago, a short speech made at Gettysburg, brought a war-torn country back to its senses. Abraham Lincoln, assassinated 17 months later, spoke just for three minutes using 278 words for saying what stirred the soul of America. He was speaking about Americans who gave their lives so that equality continues to live.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (November 19, 1863)

In the last week of May 2020, an American man in his last 127 words spread over an 8 minutes long struggle to remain alive, , desperately gasping for breath, said exactly the same as Lincoln had said. Or, as Joe Biden put it, “the original sin of slavery stains our country.” George Flyod’s words will go down in history as an immortal outcry for the right to dignity and equality.

“It’s my face man
I didn’t do nothing serious man
please
please
please I can’t breathe
please man
please somebody
please man
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe
please
(inaudible)
man can’t breathe, my face
just get up
I can’t breathe
lease, a knee on my neck
I can’t breathe
shit
I will
I can’t move
mama
mama
I can’t
my knee
my neck
I’m through
I’m through
I’m claustrophobic
my stomach hurt
my neck hurts
everything hurts
some water or something
please
please
I can’t breathe officer
don’t kill me
they’re gonna kill me, man
come on man
I cannot breathe
I cannot breathe
they’re gonna kill me
they’re gonna kill me
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe
please sir
please
please
please I can’t breathe”

When breath had left his body, the Mississippi continued to flow through Minneapolis, but within a week more than seventy cities of the US were agog with protest, burning with anger. The intensity of anger was such that when protesters gathered outside the White House, the American President had to scurry for shelter in a bunker. Protests did not remain confined to the US alone. They found echoes at the Trafalgar Square in London. There were protests in Germany, Iran, Canada, and New Zealand and in many African and Asian countries. The not so well-known Charles Hoag, the first school teacher had brought the native word for ‘water’ mni, together with the Greek words for ‘new’ nea and ‘city’ polis to create the name, Minneapolis, thinking of the great rivers and the lakes that adorn the city’s surroundings. Today, the brutal killing of George Flyod brings the meaning of that name alive once again as suddenly defiance wells up in the world suffocated by hatred, contempt, arrogance of regimes and their blatant defence of inequality.

Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, “Every day, it seems, brings another indicator of our decline: the can-do nation has become a land that can’t deal with a pandemic, the leader of the free world has become a destroyer of international institutions, the birthplace of modern democracy is ruled by would-be authoritarians. How can everything be going so wrong, so fast?” This is no longer the question just for the US. It is the question that billions are asking in Russia, China, India, Nigeria, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, and many more countries. In 2014, Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, was killed by choking; and as he gasped for breath, he kept screaming ‘I can’t breathe’. Eleven times, he said this. He was no more for saying it the twelfth time. The Staten Island, New York, where Garner was killed is just half an hour’s drive, 17 miles, from the world famous Statue of Liberty.

The protests that erupted after Flyod’s murder are not just about flaws in criminal law or inadequacy of police Manuals. They are about the question of liberty, equality and fraternity. The moral anger spread all over the world is seething with the question, ‘Are we not all humans and, therefore, all equally equal?’ This was the question that lit up the dark night Barrister Mohandas Gandhi spent at the tiny train station at Pietermaritzburg after being kicked out of the First Class coach by a white police on 7 June 1893. So it was in Nelson Mandela’s mind when he joined the African National Congress and when he told on 20 April 1964 the magistrate determined to judge him guilty of ‘treason’ that his proposed ANC Convention was no treason. “We know that your government will once again unleash all its fury and barbarity to persecute the African people. But as the result of the last strike has clearly proved, no power on earth can stop an oppressed people determined to win their freedom. History punishes those who resort to force and fraud to suppress the claims and legitimate aspirations of the majority of the country’s citizens.”

I have looked at the photograph of the police officer kneeling down on the Flyod’s neck again and again to see if, at least momentarily, there was any shade of remorse betrayed by his eyes. With his hands in his pockets, he looks cool. Despite his being racist, his act cannot be ascribed exclusively to him; it is a collective culpability of all elements in the American society that abet the tendency, and even more clearly responsibility of the present regime that has done its worst to pit people against people, divide them, inject in their minds large doses of contempt and back it up with Tweets from the President’s office.

As I write this, my heart wants to convey to the people of America complete empathy from India. In Shakespeare’s Othello, asked to say ‘Amen’, Othello is unable to utter the sacred word since he has just returned after assassinating the king. In what words, except words empty of meaning, can I, as an Indian convey my solidarity with our American sisters and brothers? Won’t the young and the freedom loving people from Minneapolis ask me, ‘Did students and teachers from all Indian universities protest when Rohit Vemula had to commit suicide? Did the regular scenes of mob-lynching move the hearts of people across India? Did the rapes and murders of Dalit girls and children enrage all Indians?” In which words can I explain to them that millions of Adivasis continue to suffer inequality of every kind and yet India lightly turns its head the other way? How at all can I convey to them that millions of denotified and Nomadic people, who were branded by the British as criminal, continue more or less in the same state even now; and most Indians even do not know about them? And, how, if at all, can I share with them my shame and guilt of seeing millions of migratory labourers walking hundreds of kilometres, braving a 40-plus summer heat, while the regime continued to deny the fact and people not going beyond sending just polite grumbling letters to the administration?

As the world comes to a standstill under the dark shadow cast by the Corona virus, the cancer of inequality is spread fast in societies all over the world. ‘Social distancing’, the most potent weapon used in caste, class, gender discrimination, has indirectly gained a greater legitimacy. The sacred books of modern democracy, Constitutions of various countries that proclaim equality as a non-negotiable article of faith, are mocked at. What George Orwell termed as ‘New speak’, the Post-Truth, has overwhelmed the political discourse. Therefore, this is the moment to recall the thoughts of Barrister Gandhi on the 7th June 1893 and of Nelson Mandela on the 20 April 1964 and say in the words of Lincoln that ‘All men and women are created equal.’ It is the time to say, every moment, ‘I can’t breathe.

G. N. Devy is a cultural activist and author known for the People’s Linguistic Survey of India. He is also the founder of the Adivasi Academy, and Bhasha Research and Publication Centre.


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