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SILENT HYPOXIA

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

May 26, 2020


It's happened again. Yesterday an unarmed black man was killed by police. This time the man, George Floyd, was handcuffed. A Minnepolis police officer knelt on Floyd's neck until he died.





Floyd kept saying, "I can't breathe." The bystander video that captured this horrifying event showed Floyd saying "I can't breathe" 11 times as the life slowly left his body. They say it took him 8 minutes and 48 seconds to die.


I can't watch the whole video. It's everywhere, it's exploding on the Internet and social media and TV, and I don't know how the person who filmed it kept hold of their phone, and stood there, for all of that time. I don't know how the other 3 officers present could have stood by and watched while Officer Derek Chauvin did the actual killing. Stephanie and I got to the point late last night, after watching every broadcast run that footage, where we were unable to keep watching it — and after we turned off the TV, also unable to stop seeing it.

"I can't breathe" were the same words Eric Garner said in 2014, in New York City, when a cop held him in a chokehold until he asphyxiated.


In December of that year, the words "I can't breathe" appeared on t-shirts worn by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball team and on athletes in the National Football League and National Basketball Association. I remember LeBron James getting slammed for wearing t-shirts reading "I Can't Breathe," maybe because some people wanted their superstar not to remind them of the ugly reality of racism when he appeared on TV? Like he was supposed to "keep it light" (pardon the pun)??? And I remember President Obama defended him. I remember the ACLU saying people, even kids, had a right to wear clothes with those words on them.


In all the #BlackLivesMatter marches, people carry signs that read "I Can't Breathe."



There must be other people besides me who think that this phrase, so potent before 2020, means even more now that humans are dying of a virus that mostly kills by suffocating?


Does anyone besides me look at the image of that officer calmly, almost casually, ending the life of a man, and think of our government, which has left so many of us feeling slowly strangled? By injustice, by the poverty that was raging long before corona, by the racism that the Trump family has always been known for?




I think all of us but the super rich, Wall Street, the big banks and corporations, are gasping for air. It has been taken from us slowly, with each new piece of human rights legislation that has not even been glanced at by Mitch McConnell's Senate, much less passed. Every time big business has been allowed to tack on one more fee to our monthly bills, when banks continue to charge outrageous interest on college loans, when prescription drug prices are higher than ordinary people can pay, we gasp a little more. That's how the virus works too — so gradually that often by the time people get to the hospital, they are already close to death. Some have even died in Emergency waiting rooms.


Doctors have recently discovered that something is happening called "silent hypoxia." Instead of the lungs becoming clogged as with pneumonia, oxygen levels in the blood slowly fall. It's a process so gradual that some sufferers don't even realize it's happening.


When I first heard about silent hypoxia, I immediately likened it to the slow leak we Americans have been experiencing as our human rights have been disregarded, one by one. As we have been forced by Trump and his enablers to accept what no administration has ever forced on the public: laws changed and judges installed, budgets raided, the Constitution defied outright. Today I'm thinking of George Floyd, Eric, all the black men who left this world slowly and painfully by not being able to breathe.


And I worry that if protests continue, which I both hope and fear they will, the virus will prey on those crowds of people who have been pushed past the point of endurance to march in the streets, because they can't bear it another second.



Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA - Black Lives Matter protest against St. Paul police brutality, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44807549



I've been honest so far here, and I'll be honest again: I'm not handling this well. Maybe in addition to the emotional agony so many Americans are feeling right now, it's even worse for people with breathing conditions — maybe hearing about asphyxiation is just too much. I don't know. I can't think about those last moments of George Floyd's death, Or Eric Garner's, or what about the hundreds or thousands of cases that don't get national media attention? What about the way CIVID-19 is ripping though prisons, which are disproportionately full of black men? Do they also die gasping for air?


Like a lot of people right now, I keep thinking that ordinary aches and pains could be signs of it. So I notice my asthma, as I don't normally. All my life I've carried a rescue inhaler everywhere. I still use it several times a day, as well as a steroidal inhaler that's supposed to make me not need the rescue inhaler. My asthma isn't considered "under control" by doctors, though I've lived with the condition for so long that I manage it without thinking much about it.


But now, since corona, I'm forced to understand I actually am at risk, especially given where I live. The threat is real. It just feels strange to suddenly think of myself as fragile when I never have before.


I know I'm fragile emotionally, too, as a lot of us are right now. Our society is under such incredible stress at this moment that it feels almost impossible to separate the strands. Am I shaking from a justifiable fear of a virus that is literally everywhere? or because a police officer just coldly and methodically killed a man on video, in daylight, with witnesses, seemingly as an ordinary part of his day?


George Floyd was another needless black death by a white racist in a country whose deeply shameful history includes many almost identical deaths in just the last few years. Or am I so upset because white authoritarian violence against blacks isn't actually recent at all?




Now I watch the people massing in the streets and I rejoice, even though I'm scared for them, even though I'm angry that I can't join them. For the past three and a half years, We the people have been crushed by this President and those who support him and ignore his crimes. And also by the rich in this country who know who he is but only care about stock market numbers.


But we haven't been crushed completely. In fact, maybe all these weeks of quarantine, we've just been gathering our strength.



Photo credit: Jamelle Bouie - File available on Flickr here as a set. This is the individual photo., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35442332

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