“I Can’t Breathe”

There’s a sick sort of doubling occurring at the moment, exacerbating our global distress and malaise.

“I can’t breathe” once again becomes a way for protestors to identify with the deceased, but it now cuts through two forms of diminished life, whether that be citizens suffocated by police or by disease.

Our present (all too personal) problems, that have defined the last few weeks of lockdown — selfish, noisy neighbours, and the constant banging from a nearby building site; freelance precarity and mental health instability — feel so parochial right now. However, rather than the riots making Covid life feel less pressing, life becomes even more claustrophobic as we incessantly watch the constant streams and video clips shared by citizen journalists on the other side of the world. Our little flat, where we’ve been huddled for months now, feels even more detached from a society falling apart all around us. It is a distance that is almost comforting, but the comfort also nauseates.

Twitter doesn’t help. As both a place of online protest and the dissemination of political information, and as the one place that has retained some sense of normality since social distancing came into effect, there is a strange guilt that comes from using the platform to watch the world unravel and also to keep tweeting as usual.

On Friday night, a friend sends me a digital flyer sharing information about protests scheduled to take place in London over the weekend and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather not be. That feeling is vindicated the following day when I see video footage of crowds in Trafalgar Square — a landmark I used to walk over on my way to work; a walk I did every other day for two years — and I feel sick just looking at that aerial throng navigating streets that used to be so familiar — before all this.

I haven’t been to central London since February.

The thought of being in a crowd for any reason at all at the moment is anxiety-inducing, but at what point does Covid-19 paranoia lead to state complicity? My timeline is split between friends still suffering from post-Covid complications and those on the front line in cities experiencing unrest.

I’m anticipating my monthly Patreon payment to come through next week. A modest amount and not my main source of income. Right now I’m thinking which organisations I can send it to. It feels like the right sort of gesture to make with this platform but, social media optics aside, it doesn’t feel like much.

What, if anything, can pierce through the strangely resonant disparities of police brutality and state incompetence?

The covered faces of rioters, whether by medical masks or skull bandanas, melt into a mire of anonymity, as the reality of the pandemic remains both ever-present and fades into the background. Talk of “outside agitators” speaks to both conspiratorial sociology and paranoid virology. The horror expressed at communal “self-harm”, encapsulated by damaged businesses, overrides any discussion the communal “self-harm” that comes from flouting social distancing advice. The state demonstrates an indifference regarding the escalation of either contagion — whether it is violence or disease that spreads, the state just adds fuel to every fire. Arguments from reactionary citizens that deplore the damage being done to local economies fail to land when those economies are already so anaemic.

What kind of world are we staying indoors to preserve? What kind of world are we burning down?

The burning of buildings feels like an ever more important symbolic act against this backdrop, and especially after so many months spent sheltering in place. Now more than ever we are like hermit crabs moving house, swapping the discarded and barnacled Coca-Cola can for something new. On an individual level, we spend every day daydreaming of a life outside the city, outside this overpriced shoebox flat, in some cheap two-up-two-down in a down-and-out seaside town that is, for better and for worse, detached from the drama. It has become more and more apparent that there was no shitter place to be than a city when a pandemic hits. On a collective level, we spend every day struggling to birth a new system, attacking one pillar of society that only makes the others hide behind militaries and demagogic threats. It has become more and more apparent that there was no shitter place to be than a city when the state hits.

It’s true that nothing has ever died by its contradictions but a consciousness of those contradictions has never been more readily within our grasp. Seeing the contradictions for what they are — the bookends of our frenzied stasis; the fault lines of capitalist realism — is the first step towards building new and desperately needed futures.

2 thoughts on ““I Can’t Breathe”

  1. A couple of things. I share your concern about seeing the protestors gathered so closely in public spaces. I’ve witnessed this pandemic from two vantage points: one, I was stuck in rural US, a small southern town where there was plenty of space for distancing. However, due to the politics of this small southern town, people often flouted social distancing rules which were never really enforced in Trump’s America anyway. Now, having finally made my way back to my home in Paris with my family, I’m seeing it from an urban viewpoint. The cafes are opening back up. I didn’t see any images of protestors here though my wife told me it happened here also. It makes me cringe.
    Is it a case of a populace – a majority, at that – which is so desperate for a voice, for some semblance of agency that they’re willing to set aside the urgency of the still all-too-real threat of the pandemic to be heard? This is what I would like to believe, but I would not be a part of that as I think (and rightly so) that the risk is too high. It was also predictable that the state and private concerns would twist and subsume mass protests to their benefit. And so it has been. You’re absolutely right that all the hand-wringing about damaged businesses coming from rightwing and reactionary elements fall flat because all along it is also they who bemoan the state of the economy, albeit for different reasons than those of us who identify those problems as being innate to capitalism.
    As for cities versus rural areas, population density alone makes the former riskier than the latter, though at the time of my departure, the infection rate was increasing in the little town in Georgia I was in. Rarely did I see people wearing masks. That was seen as PC, far-left, etc. Yet just counties away, workers were being forced back early to dangerous work environments – meat packing plants, mostly. And as you know, there were powerful voices in the US explicitly saying that lives aren’t as important as the economy (capitalism). Could it be any more naked than that. What’s more, at some of these factories, workers who abstained from going to work were in the process of being black-balled. Employees were encouraged to rat on workers they knew who were healthy and opted to stay home. And in the US, employers can and do keep employees from getting unemployment benefits if they’re fired. It depends on state laws, but more and more states are “right-to-work” states. There is not a clearer example of Orwellian language than that…even the Patriot Act doesn’t top this legislation, which basically states the worker has no rights or recourse for being fired. The true meaning of the legislation is “right-to-fire.” So, best get your asses back to work or suffer an even more precarious plight.
    As for the other demonstrable constant of American life, systematized police brutality, yes, I think this is a case of desperation when people risk their lives to protest in the close confines of what’s left of our public spaces. As we both know, those, too, are rapidly disappearing. Irrational? Yes. Rational? It appears as if that’s the case as well. To the idea of contrast between American action and Britain’s stasis, I’d add that what we are seeing in the US is also an example of stasis. I’ve already written more than I’d intended.
    I’ll leave the debate to whether we are finally regressing into that dreaded permanent state of exception we’ve gotten wrong before to other, more qualified folks. I’m not a legal expert. But I know what my eyes see. And I can only think of the old Minutemen tune: What Makes a Man Start Fires?

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  2. Oh yes – wish I’d known about the Cyclonopedia reading group. It’s probably been around 7 years since I read it and it’s about time to delve back into it, though my copy of Intelligence and Spirit is next in queue.

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