Neighborhood NewsPublic Interest

Building an Antiracist Community Breathing the Same Air

Staying inside on a beautiful summer day because the air is unsafe to breathe is no small thing for those of us in the North Country for whom summer is all too short. As is often the case when it comes to social disruption, whether it is COVID, inflation or anything else, it is the most vulnerable who are hit the hardest. Still, the warning to stay inside and minimize any outdoor activity when the air is laden with smoke applies to us all equally. We share the same air. We all need to breathe.
The final words of George Floyd continue floating in the summer air, “I can’t breathe.” Breath gives us life. Breath ensures life. Without breath, life slips away. But, there is something in-between breath and no breath, between life and no life. There is that space in which the air we breathe is present, but insufficient, constricted, blocked by pollutants and forces over which we have little or no control, smoke from Canada, climate change dryness and for George Floyd, the long history of racism that he was unable to escape. 
We stay inside on a beautiful summer’s day. We wait for the air to clear. What else can we do? Long for winter and the respite of a cold freeze? We know it is of no help to blame the Canadians, even though the smoke has been coming from their dried out forests. We will go outside when we can, when we are told it is safe. Or perhaps, we will ignore the warnings, take a few years off of our life and breathe deeply the air filled with toxins. Whatever our choice, there is no escaping the longing we have for summer air to breathe freely, the ability to live uninhibited by these pollutants that keep us anxious, afraid, constricted. We want clean air to breathe. Who doesn’t?
Long before George Floyd took his last gasp of air, he had been longing for breath free of the racism that has been lingering in our nation’s air from the very beginning. “I can’t breathe” has been uttered many times before, by Floyd and the long lineage of those who have yearned to breathe deeply, free of this toxin. 
We all breathe the same air that is between breath and no breath, between life and no life, constricted, insufficient, for that which is possible if we could breathe freely. We stay inside the confines of limited friendships, limited relationships. We restrict where we go and when we go. Best to stay away from some neighborhoods or downtown at night or wherever it is that fear restrains. 
Summer is short. Life is short. It is no small thing to be constrained by prejudices, fears, and, like climate change, the leftover consequences of policies and practices that existed long before any of us took our first breath.
Yet, we know another world is possible. It begins with the recognition; we all breathe the same air.
Tim Johnson is a retired pastor for United Church of Christ.

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