Respiratory Failure

By Jessica Holmes

May 31, 2020

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Serial photographs over 7 days in a patient with Covid-19 depicting progression of lung disease that ultimately required intubation. Courtesy of U.S. National Library of Medicine.

“I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” Last weekend in Manhattan, Amy Cooper launched herself into viral notoriety with those words. Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black man who was bird-watching in the Ramble section of Central Park, had asked Amy Cooper to leash her roaming dog, as per the park’s rules. When she responded to his request with aggression and a promise to call the police, Christian Cooper turned on his cell phone camera in order to document their interaction. His video shows her quickly becoming more agitated and aggressive, while Cooper himself remained steady and controlled. But in Amy Cooper’s threat, the qualifier of the man’s race was deliberate, and betrayed her sinister confidence in a judicial system that would of course uphold a white woman’s testimony of the incident over a Black man’s.

Two days later, another video emerged online. This one, taken in broad daylight on a street in Minneapolis, showed a white police officer press his knee into the neck of George Floyd, a Black man who had just been handcuffed and pinned to the pavement. In the video, Floyd pleads for his life as Derek Chauvin’s knee constricts his air passages. “I can’t breathe,” he is heard repeating on the seven-minute film. And soon, he is dead.

“I can’t breathe.” This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this horrific phrase on video, gasped by a Black man under arrest. In 2014, a Staten Island police officer strangled Eric Garner who, like Floyd was unarmed, handcuffed, and pinned to the ground. In his last moments, Garner struggled to vocalize these same words: “I can’t breathe.” All charges against the officer were dropped. This disregard for Black life is another form of suffocation, and it’s woven into the fabric of America. And the act of strangling the breath from the Black bodies has an even longer history than that. Think of the 3,446 documented lynchings of African-Americans that took place between 1882 and 1968. Forty lynchings a year reported over an 86-year period. A lynching can be murder by any means, but the vast majority were deaths by hanging. There were no cell phone cameras but how many of these victims, also called out desperately, “I can’t breathe?”

There was no cell phone documentation available either to 14-year old Emmett Till in 1955 when Roy Bryant kidnapped and brutally murdered the child based upon the false accusations of Bryant’s wife, a white store clerk. In 2017, Carolyn Bryant confessed she had lied about the interaction between her and Till on that late August day in 1955, and the echoes of her confession resound in Amy Cooper’s phony threat. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” Is it any wonder Christian Cooper hit the ‘record’ button?

The fact of these recent cell phone documentaries depicting white America’s deeply embedded racism unfolding against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be overstated. A virus that, at its worst, physically suffocates the lungs of its host has thoroughly upended American life. Black Americans are dying of coronavirus at nearly three times the rate that white Americans are succumbing, which only further unveils systemic racism. Underpaid jobs in meat plants and grocery stores, overcrowded, low-income housing, and underfunded hospitals exacerbate health risks. While police brutalize Black bodies in the street, these social conditions leave them for dead.

Ventilators and masks and airborne droplets have become symbols for the way we live—and breathe—in 2020. The wearing of a mask in public, just two months ago regarded almost universally as a lifesaving gesture, an act of generosity in its acknowledgment of the potential fragility of others’ lives, has now become a point of political contention. Armed protestors—overwhelmingly white—storm state capitals, mouths unprotected, in flagrant disregard for the scientific facts that espouse their safety, calling for the reopening of business in America, and claiming their right to breathe without the obstruction of a thin piece of cotton across their noses and mouths. They’ve been met with little or no resistance. Unarmed protestors—overwhelmingly masked—who are railing against George Floyd’s death have been met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and the installment in Minneapolis of the National Guard.

America has two viral pandemics on its hands. One is novel; a physical menace that arrived just a few months ago. The other is longstanding; a historical aberrance that continues to infect the nation by its stubborn insistence on white supremacy. To whom are we paying lip service when we proclaim our collective right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” The country’s new grapple with the coronavirus makes manifest for a wider, whiter population a mere glimpse of the terrifying possibility that your breath can be taken from you, at anytime, by an unseen force. For Black Americans, it’s already long been possible for the simple act of respiration, the most basic element of life, to be obstructed without lawful consequence. That knowledge should leave every conscionable American absolutely breathless.

Jessica Holmes is the Editor-in-Chief of Degree Critical. She also contributes regularly to the Brooklyn Rail, BOMB, and other publications. Find her writing and other projects as

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