Combat breathing: The spirit of rebellion in the US

The revolt against police brutality after George Floyd’s death evokes Frantz Fanon’s ‘combat breathing’ and the notion that life cannot be conceived without struggle for a new social consciousness.


George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe”, echoed those of Eric Garner, murdered in America by the police in 2014. Floyd was killed by the police after it was alleged that he had used a counterfeit $20 note to buy cigarettes. Garner was killed by the police for selling single cigarettes. Garner was killed by a chokehold after he was wrestled to the ground. Floyd was forced on to the ground and killed by a knee on his neck. The knee pressed down for almost nine minutes. Garner repeated the word “breathe” 11 times.

Floyd’s murder by the police was filmed by a bystander. It ignited a revolt across America against the police abuse experienced in black communities throughout the United States. As Frantz Fanon put it in Black Skin, White Masks, “We revolt because we can’t breathe.” Fanon’s remark was often repeated in 2014 as Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe”, became a universal expression of daily reality of living with the threat and fear of state-sanctioned violence.

Garner’s words became all the more powerful as they merged and became part of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Say their name,” became a common call and response of respect, memory and history for all those who have been murdered. Ahmaud Arbery shot while jogging in the streets of Georgia in February. Breonna Taylor killed by the police in her home in March. The list continues and must be stopped.

1 August 2014: A memorial to Eric Garner outside film director Spike Lee’s studio in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Garner died in July 2014 after being arrested by a police officer who used a chokehold on him. (Photograph by Epics/ Getty Images)

Breathing is essential to life. Being able to breathe matters. But more than existence, the mattering of black life has become connected with a basic and at the same time radical notion of being human. Black life, in other words, as radically humanist, “porous” as Aimé Césaire put it “to all the breaths of the world”. It is worth recalling that in many languages the words for breath and spirit are the same.

Fanon concluded Black Skin, White Masks by connecting the difficulty of breathing with the reason of revolt. We revolt, he writes, “quite simply … because it became impossible … to breathe, in more than one sense of the word”. The person “who takes a stand against this”, he adds, “is in a way a revolutionary”. In this past week, where much of the nation was reopening after the Covid-19 lockdown, the revolt is making history. It is revolutionary inasmuch as it raises the question of what American society is and what it could be.

Surplus populations

The Covid-19 shutdown quickly created mass unemployment on a scale not seen since the Great Depression. So far the virus has claimed the lives of three times the number of black people than white people, laying bare the class structure of American society. Its “essential workers”, the invisible people in hospitals, care homes, public service, grocery stores and delivery companies such as Amazon, are essentially disposable labour, low-paid, often black people without benefits and without rights. In Capital, Karl Marx calls these people the “gravediggers of capital”. It should not be overlooked that this “surplus population”, which is produced by capitalism, has become part of the prison industrial complex in 21st-century America where a highly racialised prison population is subject to Covid-19 run amok.

A new determination

Fanon uses the terms “suffocated”, “hemmed in”, “smothered” and “imprisoned” to describe the experience of the colonised in The Wretched of the Earth, who are forced to live in a “narrow world strewn with prohibitions”.

There must be revolt because life cannot be conceived “otherwise than as a kind of combat … a combat breathing”. The revolt itself is a new kind of breathing and self-consciousness. It has continued for more than a week. That it grows and spreads to more locations in the face of curfews, armed force and unprovoked police attacks indicates a new kind of determination that is not exhausted in rage but is also willfully directed.

There is a direct connection to the activism and discussions around the Black Lives Matter movement that has produced a new generation who have become politically conscious during the past five years. And the social composition of the protests is genuinely multiracial, black, brown, and white, with the notion of the white ally being taken seriously by many of the white youth.

2 June 2020: Demonstrators march through the streets of Washington, DC. Protests erupted following the release of a video showing Derek Chauvin, a now former Minneapolis Police officer, kneeling on Floyd George’s neck. (Photograph by Samuel Corum/ Getty Images)

Abolish the police

One expression of the maturity of the movement and, indeed, it being “porous to all the breaths of the world” is to insist on the inclusion of the experiences of trans and queer people who have also been targets of police brutalisation and violence. Justice for Floyd is thus not an individual question. And the call for justice for the dead is being issued alongside the demand to abolish the police. The first is as fair as it is idealistic, the second is equally realistic.  

The revolts across the US represent a historic moment, questioning American political society in fundamental ways. The project of police reform, a 50-year endeavour born out of the civil rights movements and the movements to replace racist elected officials at the local level is now being seriously threatened. From Atlanta to Los Angeles, Houston to Minneapolis, New York to Chicago, Washington and Philadelphia to Portland, whether these cities have Republican or Democratic administrations, systemic police violence and murder has continued and there has been no justice against the police. The system is as corrupt and bankrupt as the idea of the police policing demonstrations against police murder.

Daily, we hear the thought and reason of the protesters and see the brutishness of the police as they fire rubber bullets, throw tear gas canisters, beat heads and deliberately drive vehicles into demonstrators. Even the mainstream journalists have been subject to arrest, tear gas and pepper spray while their bosses expect them to report on looting and property damage of upscale stores in America’s gentrified cities. Despite the attempt to mask the reality of what is happening with talk of looting as mindless, the daily reality of police and military violence, constantly posted on social media, has become clear. The majority of Americans support the protests. Life is not equitable to the destruction of property.

1 June 2020: People march against police brutality through the city centre of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania in the United States. (Photograph by Mark Makela/ Getty Images)

Combat breathing

Fanon’s words about life in colonial Algeria, written 60 years ago, have an uncanny resonance with black life in America’s cities. “There is not occupation of territory, on the one hand, and independence of persons on the other.” Under these conditions, he says, “the individual’s breathing is an observed, an occupied breathing. It is a combat breathing”.

The unfolding national revolt in the US is a combat breathing. It is anti-systemic, expressed in the attacks on police precincts, the burning of police vehicles and the chants to abolish the police. The revolt, in other words, opens up the possibility of thinking of not only the abolition of the police but also the abolition of a society that requires such a brutish, militarised, racist police force.

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