Why 'I can't breathe' is about so much more than respiration

My daughter's name is Eve.

We chose it for many reasons, but one of them was its meaning: life.

It's an English version of the Hebrew, of course, and in that original language, it's 'Chavah', pronounced with a very soft, long H at the start. So Hhaa-va.

It sounds like a sigh, a breath.


When I was in my early 20s I did a bit of travelling (sorry kids, you can't go now - maybe next year). I was trekking in Thailand, in the mountainous area to the north of Chiang Mai, when I felt my chest inexplicably tighten.

We were a long way from anywhere. Only the day before, one of the porters had literally had to pick up a Japanese tourist - who had come trekking in hard plastic court shoes and a pencil skirt - and carry her out of the jungle to send her home on a bus. He still hadn't rejoined us, because the closest town was a day's walk away. Maybe longer with a sobbing Japanese tourist in your arms.

I was as fit as I was ever going to be, and had managed happily until now, but suddenly I couldn't breathe.

It passed, but then it returned. It didn't always occur on upwards trajectories, but it sometimes did. Was it asthma? I'd had a tinge in my childhood years, but nothing serious. I'd grown out of it. Was it the opium smoking at night in the tribal huts? Not me - obviously - but that's a thing that really happened in front of my very eyes. I didn't think so, since I'd kept away from the wafts of smoke (in a state of shock, probably).

Back home, I found myself having the same problem in the strangest places. On trains, at night in bed, in cinemas.

It turned out to be panic attacks. Not that I found that out from the doctor, who mumbled something about stress, told me I needed to use relaxation techniques and gave me a script for Xanax, which I threw in the bin. Taking any medication had become a trigger for the attacks, so I didn't think that would help.

I grew out of them too, eventually.

But I've been thinking about them again, that feeling, what it's like to not be able to draw air into your lungs. The fear that makes it even worse. The sense of drowning out of water.

That's how many COVID-19 patients die. Their lungs almost dissolve into fluid and debris, drowning them from the inside out.

Over the last few months, watching patients in ICUs struggling and sweating under ventilators, I guess we've all been thinking a lot more about getting air in and out of our bodies.

Breath, respiration, is almost the definition of life, central to spiritual and medical practices alike.

So is it any wonder the phrase "I can't breathe" has such a visceral effect on us?

"I can't breathe," said George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.

"I can't breathe," said David Dungay in Long Bay Prison in November 2015.

People I know (used to know?) on Facebook have posted about what awful criminals these two were, and questioned why crowds are turning out to defend them.

They have completely missed the point.

It's not about these individuals, or not just about them, but about the way the world is set up to privilege some over others, from the day they're born. From long before they're born. How some of us get the rarefied, oxygenated air of the heights, and others get a knee on their neck, squashing their airway, from day one.

I always knew I grew up in a privileged environment. I heard that from the wise grown-ups around me all through my childhood. And while I thought that meant I had a nice house and went to a nice school, I didn't realise that also meant I could walk the streets without being stopped by police, or stroll into shops without being followed by security. How it meant I wasn't dealing with community and family dysfunction, the effects of intergenerational poverty and disenfranchisement, and the consequential desperation and despair.

I didn't realise how thoroughly my privilege - worn on my face in my very pigments - imbued every day and every opportunity that came my way.

To not acknowledge that seems to me to be at best obtuse, at worst, willfully cruel.

Of course there are nuances to this conversation. One significant one is that there are probably worse things happening in black communities, here in Australia, than police brutality - domestic violence, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, lack of education, poor health outcomes - and people want action, not just protests.

Many of the people marching would absolutely understand that and agree.

But police brutality has become both a catalyst and a symbol of all of these troubles and inequities, and the protests are a cry from the heart, a great, angry, global wail at all the pain and injustice that people see.

And you can't say it hasn't got people's attention. Let's see if that leads to action. And then maybe one day, more of us can breathe easy.