The State of Air: Breathing in These Difficult Times


“I can’t breathe,” gasped Eric Garner. 

How that phrase resonates so deeply. The murder of Eric Garner and the deaths of many across the nation, especially elderly and working-class people of color, for lack of ventilators are both examples of the state making it so that “I can’t breathe.”  Despite Garner’s clutching on for dear air, officer Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold only seemed to get stronger.  As Garner laid on the street, Pantaleo continued to tighten his grip on Garner’s neck while Garner pleaded and repeated “I can’t breathe” 11 times.  Unable to pull in any more air, Eric Garner died at the hands of Daniel Pantaleo: his death along with those deprived of respiratory equipment are proof of how the state makes some bodies easily disposable.  As Micol Seigel has so brilliantly captured in Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police (Duke University Press, 2018), the police, as agents of the state, embrace the act of violence to entrench and embody the state’s power over disenfranchised communities.  The case of the police illustrates just one component of state power that regulates how we breathe and when we breathe, if we breathe. 

In this moment, nearly 6 years after Garner’s death and 6 months after Pantaleo’s firing, our national community faces a public health matter, the spread of the coronavirus, handled by a racist infrastructure, with Donald Trump as just the visual reminder of it, where science, a moral compass, expertise, and medical treatment are tossed aside. That state, once again, determines who gets to breathe. “We can’t breathe.” Instead of taking the stockpiles of ventilators that can be at the disposal of the most urgent states tackling the coronavirus, we have Trump and his aides not addressing areas of need based on their assumptions, obligations, profit-making, and politics.

As someone who works in New York City and lives near the epicenter of the first outbreak in New Rochelle, I am completely disheartened by what is happening in Queens and Brooklyn.  The hospital in Elmhurst is overflowing with more cases of coronavirus despite inadequate supplies.  My state now has a death toll of nearly 1000 people and that is only going to grow.  Governor Cuomo has repeatedly demanded supplies of ventilators, masks, and other equipment to aid patients and medical professional in the line of duty.  However, Trump has refused to send out the number needed and necessary to save lives.  We see how the state decides who gets to live and die.  At this moment, we must not forget that the stockpile of ventilators is not owned privately by a company. The ventilators and other respiratory equipment are public material.  Our tax dollars have paid for it.  They are a public good instead of private inventory.  However, Trump’s leadership assumes that the equipment is privately owned and that it is his choice on where it is to be distributed.   This is not an individual choice; it is our collective lives.  We can’t breathe.  The large number of elderly communities of color and the working-poor in Queens and Brooklyn are most vulnerable to the virus and most impacted by the refusal to send the necessary supplies. 

What we have is a reservoir of vital equipment to save lives.  However, Trump and our federal government are using their own discretion that is not based on the needs of our communities.  Even our local responders, such a police officer and fire units, are dying as they try to manage the outbreak.  Our medical staff and scientists are sacrificing their lives for the betterment of our communities and our country, yet our political leaders do they hear our experts.  Our essential staff, many of whom are located in communities of color and working-class communities, are risking everything without access to adequate equipment or universal healthcare if they are infected. 

If we do not receive the equipment, we will all no longer be able to breathe as the virus has spread rapidly not only in New York City but across so many corners of the United States.  Garner’s plea that he couldn’t breathe was indeed a moment where he spoke truth to power.  His death tells us the truth that anti-black racism is just one part of the larger system of racism, indigenous dispossession, increased incarceration, profit and exploitation, health disparities, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny.  The state actively monitors who breathes and who cannot breathe.  It is clear that our state does not have a commitment or practice of serving all its people. 

Our lives are not choices of someone else’s choosing.  Our lives are a necessity, a necessity of our choosing.  We can’t breathe.  Our lives and our deaths are not to be under the control of the racist state.  We can’t breathe.  Let us embrace “We can’t breathe” as the mantra, plea, and demand that we want air.  Breathing is our human right, not one dictated by states.  Send the supplies needed so that our lungs can expand, our voices rise, and we are alive to support others. 

We can’t breathe.  Living in the United States, where political authority is somewhat decentralized and there are checks and balances between federal power and local and state power, let us empower ourselves at the bottom, so that we do not have to beg soulless, heartless, selfish leaders for our own air.  Call your local political officers, Congressional leaders, mayors, and governors and demand that they listen to the voice of the people while we still have air in our lungs.  Tell them to form a strong political bloc that will work for the people and put the Executive Branch of the President and his allies on the side of community and justice.  It is time to reach out and demand from our local leaders to demand more from Trump and our political leaders.  We can’t breathe.  It is time to take a deep breath and demand more.  We want to and need to breathe.  Without our breath, there will not be the breadth of talents, skills, passions, and wisdom that will move our world to a better place.  Our society will fall apart at all its seams if we can’t breathe.    

Stanley Thangaraj is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Gender Studies, and International Studies at the City College of New York (CUNY).  His interests are at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship.  His monograph Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, 2015) looks at the relationship between race and gender in co-ethnic-only South Asian American sporting cultures.  His newest research is on Kurdish America which received the 2015 American Studies Association “Comparative Ethnic Studies” award.  He will be working on the ways that diasporic Kurds in the United States address nation-state violence on transnational scales, offer counter-narratives to state histories, bind Kurdish-ness in relation to ethnic others, and manage the global war on terror.