I Can’t Breathe

I Can't Breathe

George Floyd’s last words fill me with immense sadness – one that I find hard to articulate – but beyond that, I am filled with incandescent rage. There are tears running down my face as I write this. I am furious. No more black lives can die at the hands of police brutality. It’s too much to handle. I want to scream. 

I am from the USA – New York State to be precise. Having lived in the UK for half my life, people say to me: “you still have the accent.” I politely nod and smile. I’m proud of my accent, my roots and my family’s story. It’s an immigration story similar to many Americans – with my father’s family coming from Sicily and my mother’s from Ireland. They arrived with nothing at the turn of the 20thcentury, and here I am 100 years later. 

Every story matters. George Floyd’s life mattered, and his name is part of a growing list of names of black people brutalised in recent years, adding to 400 years of injustice. It should not have happened. It must stop. I am fearful of the rhetoric of “Make America Great Again / Keep America Great.” Great for who? This idea has reached every corner of the USA and has extended across the world. There are people who actually think Donald Trump is a good president. The USA is on the verge of turning into the Third Reich. Trump is a fascist; he is stifling free speech, inciting violence and dividing a nation. This level of unrest and protest has not been seen since the Civil Rights Movement. 

When I was a child, I was so interested history. I wanted to know more about why there was slavery and inequality. The Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865 with the North winning and Abraham Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. This led to things like the Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation from 1877 until the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s. I remember my grandmother telling me about a visit to New Orleans in the early 1960s, with different restaurants, water fountains and entrances. In what civilised country was this allowed to last for so many generations? How could this ideology become ingrained – that it’s ok to make a black American sit somewhere else, refuse entry and simply be treated like a second-class citizen?

It wasn’t until 5 August 1965 that black women got the right to vote in the USA. This fills me with rage. There has been a level of injustice and inequality going on for so long that it is now part of who we are as Americans. This extends to every society in the world. Institutionalised racism must end. It makes me ashamed and disgusted. In 2015, Bree Newsome climbed a 30ft flagpole in front of the South Carolina State House to remove the confederate flag. I watched, half a world away in awe of this woman. 45 minutes later, the flag was put up again. 

Symbols are part of everyday life; they are intertwined with meaning on many levels, from the obvert to the subliminal. The confederate flag is despicable, and it should not be displayed anywhere in the USA. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I hate that symbol. It is representative of hate and oppression and yet is flies proudly on state capital buildings. Again, what is going on? 

It’s time right now for every person in the world to speak out against inequality and racism. There is no place for it. It must end. What do we do with those who indoctrinate such beliefs? It’s a very difficult question – one I don’t have an answer for, but I know that it in order for society to change, it has to begin with education.

Since the vote for Brexit in 2016, and the rise of Trump to the White House as elected in November, I’d been thinking that this was going to get worse across the world, with populists using rhetoric from the darker days of the 20thcentury. Trump’s entire political career is based on a decisive rhetoric of hate. Bots have been working hard churning out hate against China in the wake of Covid-19, so he has divorced himself from culpability. To suggest sending in “vicious dogs” on protesters is recalling a not so distant past in America connected with slavery. In 1957, President Dwight D Eisenhower called in the National Guard to Little Rock, Arkansas, to allow nine African American students to go to school, following a law in 1954 desegregating schools. The Governor of the state was not allowing them in. In what country does this happen? 

Is there a revolution coming? America is still living through a form of colonialism, though it’s internalised and hidden from view. Systems, vocabulary and “ways of doing things” are so deeply entrenched in this society because ideologies have passed from generation to generation. In order to change the world’s systemic racism, entire societies need to change.

George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight by a white police officer. We must stand up and speak out against this. I watch the protesters in America and wish I was marching down in New York with them. I want to show my rage for inequality. Power structures need to be rebalanced. I am American. I am proud of that, but I will no longer be a silent observer. Every single one of us must do something to fight racism. It must end.

Cherie Federico, Director, Aesthetica