I can’t breathe: Words Spoken Too Often from Slavery to #BLM

Written by

Iman M’Fah-Traoré
July 8th, 2020


George Floyd’s traumatizing death will not be in vain. Breonna Taylor’s will not be in vain. Our fight, our war, is for all victims of racist police brutality. Hear our cry, our roar, it is carried by faith. Faith that one day, there will be no more victims. It is our time and our duty to make it known.

2020 – George Floyd – Breonna Taylor – 2019 – Atatiana Jefferson – 2018 – Stephon Clark – Botham Jean – 2016 – Philanda Castille – Alton Sterling – 2015 – Michelle Cusseaux – Freddie Gray – Janisha Fonville – 2014 – Eric Garner – Aura Rosser – Akai Gurley – Gabriella Nevarez – Tamir Rice – Michael Brown – Tanisha Anderson

These names honor some of the victims of police brutality. We read them, we say them, we share them because these victims, their families deserve acknowledgment. If only one of the police officers on the scenes had given them the respect they deserve, these victims could have been survivors. We say their names to remember, we say their names to fuel our passion, we say their names so we will have none to say one day.

Modern slavery is real and institutionalized in the supposed land of the free. January 1st, 1863 marks the abolition of slavery and the beginning of white supremacists’ quest to find new means of ostracizing and putting away black people. The 13th amendment of the constitution, passed early 1865, effectively the first of many tactics to legalize slavery-like conduct, reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The “except” here stands as a loophole to enslaving the less-than, the 3/5s. Slavery and segregation are responsible for the media-generated image of the black man as a public enemy. They are the reason Nixon managed to equate a war on drugs to a war on blacks. Mass incarceration of people of color is not new and has been exponentially growing since 1970. The U.S’s incarcerated peoples account for 25% of the world’s entire incarcerated population when the country’s population accounts for only 5% of the world’s.

Mass incarceration of people of color is not new and has been exponentially growing since 1970. The U.S’s incarcerated peoples account for 25% of the world’s entire incarcerated population when the country’s population accounts for only 5% of the world’s.

At a time in which black people, African Americans, were considered three-fifths of a person, they were enslaved, then arrested for petty crimes leading to long sentences in labor prisons, then told where to sit, where to go to school, where not to use the bathroom, kicked and spat on in the streets, lynched in the woods, persecuted. Today, black people are considered whole, yet they are forced to live in fear, arrested for petty crimes leading to long sentences, told when to lay on the ground with knees to the back of their necks, put in chokeholds, ignored when they plead…“I can’t breathe,” lynched in the streets by those meant to serve and protect, hunted in the woods by the K.K.K, persecuted.

Credit: Iman M’Fah-Traoré

Systemic racism is central to America’s development. Although the Black Lives Matter Movement has been alive since 2013, it has never resounded so strongly. After the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, the black community and its allies roared for months. Somehow, this time, with George Floyd, feels different. We chant “enough is enough” in the streets, we cry in our homes, this time we are angrier than ever and this time we believe we will win. George Floyd was murdered on May 25th, protests erupted locally the next day, then throughout the entire country the day after that, and on May 29th, Derek Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder. It took four days after his killing, for George Floyd’s killer to be charged. When it comes to Eric Garner, who died July 17th, 2014, it took nearly half a year for a grand jury to decide not to indict him his murderer

Protesting here in NYC, gifts our collective with joy, pride, compassion, solidarity, and power.

We welcome progress yet maintain that it is not enough, and we shall not back down until we receive what is owed to us. Since their violent inception, the protests have become more peaceful as police are forced to stand down. At the very beginning, protesters were being dragged, beat, smoke bombed, tear gassed…To police, it did not matter whether they were old or young, black or white, the sheer disobedience was enough for the men in blue to justify their use of exercise force. Now police rest on the sidelines as protesters tear through the air chanting in unison. Protesting here in NYC, gifts our collective with joy, pride, compassion, solidarity, and power. Those of us who are, are proud to be black, and those of us who aren’t, take pride in being allies. While hate may destroy, the good fight assembles.

Credit: Ada Steinberg @66lives

Listening to our fellow protesters…

Ada, who often leaves her house with bottled water and snacks for fellow marchers, tells us “the Black Lives Matter protests have become a close-knit community like no other. Handing out snacks, water, and sanitary supplies. We are united. We help one another. This is when we prove to police we don’t need them. When protestors are pepper-sprayed or tear-gassed, people yell “Napkin!” “Milk!” “Water!” She goes on to denounce the “pigs’ racist, homophobic, transphobic, and sexist mentality.” She presses that we will persevere in our fight to “defund the police” because “that money is needed in areas of social justice.”

Claudia emphasizes how progress can be found in the movement becoming “internationalized and now affects everyone. In the last few months, we have finally admitted that this is not just a problem affecting the United States but that racism persists in every society. Protests have erupted on every continent, many of them challenging the restrictions due to the coronavirus. Black men and women in other countries who died in police custody or whose deaths have not been fully investigated, are surfacing in mainstream media.”

Credit: Ada Steinberg @66lives

Colombe recounts what it means to be Black in America as “constantly being reminded of the outside instead of the inside…Cops really take pride in that sense of power the badge seems to give them. Some even smirk at you.” Although she feels as at war. She takes comfort in being on “the right side of history,” one that “will know that I am here, black, beautiful, proud, queer, woman and I matter.”

Circé, a young African American describes how “being of mixed race in moments like these reminds you of your blackness and that not much has changed. My father marched on Washington—the original civil rights movement wasn’t long ago and it isn’t over either.” She goes on to share how “being African American is a strange and unique experience. You’re constantly told you’re not American or don’t belong here, but your culture and history have been completely erased. You never really know WHERE you were from.”

Wankee tells us that “as an Afro-Latino living in these turbulent times, it is more important than ever to stand by our Black brothers and sisters as they lead the charge in ending systemic racism and police brutality…Protests play a key role in finally breaking the never-ending cycle of hate based on skin color.”

Credit: Ada Steinberg @66lives

Chant with us…

Protesting is a fierce, bold, and powerful way, not only to express our sentiment, but most importantly to demand what is owed. Through chants like…

“Whose streets? Our streets!” and

“No justice, no peace, f*** these racist-ass-police!” we express…

Raising our hands in solidarity, we say, “hands up, don’t shoot!”

Through chants like… 

“What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! If we don’t get it…Shut it down! If weeee doooon’t get it…SHUT.IT.DOWN!” we demand!

We are empowered when we shout, “I believe we will win!” When we look police directly in the eyes and scream “quit your jobs,” we unite. We find comfort in knowing we are on the right side of history. 

This fight is legitimate, this fight is right, this fight against systemic racism is one that has been fought for centuries. This time, we embrace our faith, we embrace the future, we believe justice will prevail, and we will not stand down until equality dominates. 

About the Author

Iman M’Fah-Traoré is a French New Yorker. Originally born in Paris, she moved to New York in her young years and majored in Politics and Governance at Ryerson University, Toronto. She is now attending the New School in NYC for Global Studies. The Ivorian and Brazilian writer works with The Womanity Project, a non-profit that challenges gender equity with innovative workshops. Currently, she is working towards assembling her first poetry book. Her writing specializes in LGBTQ+, grief and trauma, and race and ethnicity poetry and essays.

Follow Iman on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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  1. Aurelie A Fournier-Harp

    Very powerful and a poetic chant! I BELIEVE WE WILL WIN!
    Thank you for putting in writing what I’ve been feeling and expressing with others for the past few weeks!

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