By Sikivu Hutchinson
“I can’t breathe”. These words, now reverberating across the world in gruesome playback, were among the last uttered by George Floyd, a devoted son, friend, and father, as he lay dying under the knee of a killer cop this week in Minneapolis.
According to his friends, Floyd was a “quiet personality and (a) beautiful spirit” who had moved to Minneapolis in search of a “new life”.
I began writing this piece prior to his death. It began as a reflection on the fragile state of Black girls’ mental health in the pandemic. I kept thinking about the irony of May being Mental Health Awareness month in an era when many of us might feel we are drowning, slowly going insane with rage.
For at least the third time in a month, Black people have heard and seen another Black person repeatedly executed on camera. We have grieved collectively with the families of the victims, written, protested in the streets, called for the prosecution and jailing of killer cops, and wondered if it will take armed resistance to change this seemingly endless death regime. These atrocities are unique to Breathing while Black in America, where the 24/7 corporate news cycle and state violence intersect in a toxic anti-blackness that inflicts deep psychic and emotional wounds.
Covid-fueled increases in surveillance, suppression, and lynching have become indelible signs of the rise of a twenty first century Confederacy. Over the past few weeks alone, Black folks have been treated to the spectacle of whites storming state capitols demanding re-openings; whites refusing to wear masks; whites refusing to socially distance, and whites saying a collective ‘fuck you’ to public health, screaming about having their rights violated by the government as police stand idly by. These “don’t tread on me” outbursts stand in stark contrast to the escalation in targeting of African Americans in public by the NYPD and LAPD, as well as with the recent terrorist murders of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and George Floyd. Taylor was killed while asleep in her bed. Arbery was gunned down in broad daylight on a jog. Floyd was slain face down on the ground while telling the officer who killed him that he was going to die. The family of Eric Garner, who was murdered in 2014 under similar circumstances by killer cops in Staten Island, New York, have had to relive painful memories of his death.
These violent assaults on Black bodies and Black communities have heightened the mental health trauma that many African Americans, especially youth, are experiencing in Covid times. The constant replay of videotaped arrests, beatings, and killings of Black folks elicit fear, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness in Black youth who may feel that the burden of everyday living has become too much to bear. Couple this with the closure of schools, and the elimination of the vital support services they provide, and there is virtually no quarter for youth who are suffering from the PTSD elicited by unrelenting anti-blackness.
The mental health toll of COVID suppression has also exacerbated the academic, emotional, and caregiving burdens that Black girls and girls of color have always had to shoulder. Sexism and misogynoir are intimately related in the politics of the pandemic, as Black women essential workers are simultaneously put on the line to die for their jobs and take care of their children. The U.S. is one of the few post-industrial nations without universal childcare, and its absence has had a devastating impact on the everyday lives of Black women and girls. As COVID-modified school schedules and continued “distance learning” become the norm, the childcare deficit will be even more pronounced.
Disparities in caregiving, and experiences with sexual and domestic violence, have long been unifying factors among Black and Latinx girls in South L.A. schools. Many of my students take care of younger siblings and older relatives while grappling with unaddressed trauma. During a Black feminism workshop I taught at Diego Rivera Learning Center before the COVID shutdowns, a majority of the one hundred girls who attended raised their hands when I asked whether they were expected to do caregiving duties that their male relatives were not tasked with. They rattled off babysitting and household chores as the most exhausting, time-consuming tasks they had to do. As a result, they feel stressed out from being at home, juggling schoolwork, domestic chores, babysitting, and adult care. In the midst of the pandemic, many of them have experienced the daily trauma of seeing their loved ones succumb to the virus and hearing 24/7 coverage of pandemic-related deaths. Many of them are also anxiety-ridden about predictions that their lives may never go back to what they knew before. And many of them must grapple with parents or caregivers who are incarcerated in a jail where they’re more likely to contract the virus, on the frontlines as essential workers, or out of work, facing food insecurity and the constant threat of becoming unhoused.
These stressors are set against the backdrop of looming state and local budget cuts to education and social services. Over the past two months since the LAUSD shut down, the activist group Students Deserve has fought to protect the rights of criminalized students of color disenfranchised by the district’s transition to distant learning. In the City of L.A., Mayor Garcetti is angling to increase the LAPD’s budget by 7.1% for the new fiscal year. This move has been slammed by Black Lives Matter, Ground Game L.A. and K-town, who argue that Garcetti’s budget plan, which also proposes furloughing city workers and slash social services, will further devastate communities of color hardest hit by COVID. Kowtowing to a contract agreement that the City Council negotiated last year with the L.A. Police Protective League, Garcetti wants to dramatically increase LAPD overtime pay, as well as provide bonuses for officers with college degrees. Garcetti’s office has defended the increases as necessary for allowing police to transition into social welfare-oriented duties such as “homeless outreach, COVID testing and working assignments at emergency shelters”. However, any increase in police presence in L.A.’s communities automatically translates into more suppression, surveillance, and targeting of black and brown folks. Garcetti’s police state boondoggle is especially unconscionable given the multiple social welfare crises that the city’s poorest neighborhoods are facing in a city where housing is only affordable for an elite few. BLM and other community groups have spearheaded an alternative “People’s Budget” process that encourages L.A. city residents to challenge the City’s budget in an online survey and through public comment to councilmembers.
The U.S. police state is one of the most dangerous public health threats to Black wellness and mental health. Being able to breathe, to be mentally whole and healthy, in a violence and suppression free environment, has historically been a white supremacist luxury. Our children should not have to live in a nightmare America where breathing while black carries a death sentence.