Can We Breathe? The Politics of Breath in COVID-19 and the Carceral State

Tonya Lovelace
3 min readMay 31, 2020

Breath, for Black people, is historically imperiled. Chains, ropes, ocean and river water, bullets, elbows, feet, knees, legal mandates, executive orders, many devices are employed to choke us out.

Before COVID-19, Black people have known that they have the highest rates of asthma, high blood pressure, and heart disease due to structural and medical inequities. The struggle to breathe, no matter the income or locality is a daily occurrence for many Black folk.

Amid COVID-19, at a time where the entire globe is at risk for illness and death, Black folk are panting, gasping, and dying at higher rates due to state and systemic entrapments of essential service jobs and close living conditions, and others are just now noticing.

Amid COVID-19, the spirit of the carceral state is alive and well, swirling out to Brooklyn, where the majority of people arrested for nonadherence to social distancing are Black.

The carceral spirit swirled over to Central Park, stoking the theatrics of a white woman to threaten the breath of Christian Cooper by calling the police, so moved by her very own performance that she repeatedly strangled the breath out of her dog to do so.

The carceral spirit floated to Louisville to the home of Breonna Taylor, an EMT, an essential worker, who worked to protect the breath of the community, had her own breath snuffed out when a no-knock warrant allowed police to barge in and shoot her in her sleep.

The carceral spirit traveled to white men with shotguns claiming to attempt a citizen’s arrest based on suspicion and took the breath of Ahmaud Arbery while out jogging.

The carceral spirit lilted to three police who kneeled upon the body and neck of George Floyd while he choked out the words, “I can’t breathe,” six years after Eric Garner met the same fate.

The carceral spirit is out trolling protesters at this moment, inhibiting breath with tear gas, mace, batter rams, clubs, and guns.

I posit that breath is political. Black people are fighting for their very right to breathe. Those with the privilege of respiration without trepidation do not understand the daily struggle to simply breathe.

Non-Black people join me in this brief, Unrest Meditation.

Inhale deeply, 1, 2, 3.

Exhale, 1, 2, 3.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

As you continue to breathe deeply, allow yourself to reflect on your privilege to breathe. Notice how breath expands your lungs, oxygen flows to through your veins, through your limbs.

Allow your thoughts to float to continuous, unrelenting, public, high profile, bold, desperate acts upon Black bodies, squeezing out our breath. Limbs limp, non-oxygenated, still.

Envision your well-oxygenated hands picking up the phone to call the Minneapolis District Attorney to bring more charges to the arrested officer and to charge the other officers who all pressed the life out of George Floyd.

Imagine your fingers typing messages about the privilege of breath to your friends and family on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Wiggle your toes and see them slipping into shoes to walk out and stand in peaceful protest with your loved ones you invited to stand with you, in your living room or the street.

Feel your lips moving to tell Karen and Becky that they do not have to call the police. They do not need displays of proximity to power for validation. They already hold unearned privilege and do not have to employ this power grab. Encourage them to resist their herstory in doing so.

Finally, wrap your arms around yourself and visualize hugging the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, friends, and people of the Black men and women who lost their breath to the carceral state and COVID-19.

Slowly bring yourself back. Promise that you will continue to do these actions and more.

So Black people can breathe.

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Tonya Lovelace

Visionary leader, global citizen, and movement maker, organizing Black people & women of color on DV, SV, community, & state violence for nearly 35 years.