excerpted from Year of Plagues: A 2020 Memoir (HarperCollins, 2021)
George Floyd, I add your name to a long and growing list of those killed by the police, though no less of a shock to see over nine minutes of an officer with his knee on your neck and you in handcuffs with two of the other three pinning your body and legs and the third standing guard. How long those minutes string out on my nerves and stretch to breakpoint my ability to bear that time and not succumb to damage of my ability to see with clarity. Who am I kidding? Cancer and COVID19 together, amount to less than what you had to bear in those nearly nine minutes of your murder.
George Floyd tied to a history of slavery. History that is as warm as Floyd’s body. A history before the noose of that officer’s knee consigned George Floyd to history. His body robbed of natural breath, refills with the breath of history. A history that insists it must be for his flesh now, his flesh that looks like flesh back then.
It is this suit of history in the shape of George Floyd’s skin that I wish to unzip and have him step out of it and walk away. Without this suit of history the police see a big man in good shape whom they must bargain with to find out what part if any he plays in their reason for being there. Without this suit, this black skin, with the naked appearance of whiteness, the police see a perfect specimen of themselves. They talk to him and shake his hand and wish him a good day. He walks away and lives to see his children and grandchild.
With this suit on George Floyd that cannot be unzipped, the body’s biggest organ, the other option if George’s black skin is non-negotiable is to pluck out the eyes of the police, or have them wear lenses that see black skin without the negative connotations of history, skin as somehow neutral, as somehow freed from a history of enslavement.
If the police are blind when they meet George Floyd, they encounter another person, a stranger; if they can see, they meet George Floyd but do not see the individual, and only register the history attached to his skin that robs him of his humanity. By seeing, in effect, they are blind to him.
The city of Los Angeles is under curfew. For the first time in my nearly thirty years in the United States I am living in a city under martial law. My wife Debbie and I stop at the red lights to cross Venice Boulevard into the strip mall with our local supermarket. There along the cordoned-off three-lane street for each direction of traffic of Venice we see yellow police tape and two recycling trucks parked across the lanes to block all entry. We gawk at the desert fatigues of the National Guard and their sand- camouflaged armored vehicles. I utter an expletive out of shock and horror.
There’s urgency in the crowd inside the supermarket. It feels as if something terrible is about to happen along Venice Boulevard that might include this supermarket. Everyone fills their trolleys quickly and heads for the checkouts. In the line a woman says her husband is armed and waiting in their car, guarding it. We shake our heads and look at each other a little disbelieving of what we just witnessed on Venice and what we hear now in the checkout line.
We cross Venice slowly and look long and hard at the soldiers and their armored vehicles. Venice Boulevard corrupted, tainted, infected. The air full of those spores able to permeate our masks.
COVID19 takes second place to this emergency curfew response that brings the National Guard into our streets.
As the city burns so my heart bleeds for the minutes George Floyd lay handcuffed on the ground restrained by four officers with one of them pressing his knee to his neck.
As city streets fill with protests for George Floyd, who pleaded to his last breath to be allowed to breathe, I draw on this bitter air for him and all who died at the hands of genocidal anti-Black violence.
We walk our dog in a neighborhood that hurts all over. We talk uncompromisingly: this is the time to prosecute all police who have records of the use of excessive force; and fire prosecutors and coroners who have upheld brutal murders by police by not prosecuting them for first-degree murder and for declaring dead black men who died at the hands of police as dead from a pre-existing condition.
As the world reels from COVID19 and this latest police murder, I want to see the police force reformed to protect and serve the community, not terrorize and brutalize black and brown and poor members of that community.
Today’s society-cancer is the police – a force sanctioned by the state to control its citizens by violent means. My cancer is the police – a rampant disease in me that does violence to me. George Floyd’s murder must result in a reinvention of the police force – defund them and put those funds into social and economic programs, such as mental and physical healthcare, education at all age levels, anti-incarceration initiatives, and youth employment training.
George Floyd’s murderers must be brought to trial – no peace, no justice, even if it means unpredictable violence. Thank goodness for the energy and outrage of the young, who take to the streets no matter the personal cost. They march and chant, ‘no justice, no peace, prosecute the police.’ They hold silent vigils for eight minutes and forty- six seconds, the length of time the officers pinned George Floyd to the ground with a knee pressed to his neck.
This has turned into a manifesto for radical change of our police force. The body count goes back to slavery in America. That a uniform protects a murderer is cause for shouting in the street. That George Floyd and so many others died because the police protect officers who practice racism to the point where they commit murder methodically or spontaneously, knowing they can get away with it, deserves community and wider public outrage.
As my city burns my heart breaks for George Floyd. I mean my nerves feel this unbearable strain of another death of a Black person at the hands of the police. It feels too much on top of society’s COVID19 restrictions and my battle with cancer. It takes me back to ’92 and Rodney King’s beating and the acquittal of the police involved, longer still to ’55 to Emmett Till’s murder by Whites for his alleged whistle at a White woman who retracted her story much later, saying that the whistling incident never happened.
Hurt strafes the air of mid-city. Someone or something bruised this morning light. The light runs a gauntlet, beaten with sticks. Or else squeezes like wet clothes through a clothespress. Trees, grass, wire fences, brick walls, buildings cower from that particular shine, that dents your eyes, makes them bloodshot. You walk the streets as though every paving stone were broken bottles with you barefoot. You wait to cross at the lights no longer sure cars will obey the red light and white-lit pedestrian walk-sign. You do not trust the quiet kept by houses. Their curtained windows harbor surveillance and threat.
The city mourns for George Floyd and a long list of other names. We look somber, we move slowly. We breathe for George Floyd and many others who met a similar fate. We say some of their names, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Armaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Antwon Rose, Trayvon Martin. We recite as we inhale deeply ‘This is for you, George Floyd.’ He stands for all those murders. We lend him our strength so that he frees himself of his three police assailants with their knees on his legs, his torso, and his neck, the fourth standing guard to cover them. They fall away from him, blinded by the collective power of his light, he shines above the road, unhurt, full of his restored Black being, and departs that scene.
Cancer plays hide and seek with me – hide in plain sight as COVID19, hide behind the ramifications of the murder by police of George Floyd. The many always outweigh the few and so I bow in obedience to everything communal, and accept my lot, my fight with cancer, as a private matter. Cancer dares me to claim my disease as more important than the mass waves of COVID19 and the uprisings over George Floyd.
I’m silenced by my situation. George Floyd died because of anti-Black racism. I am threatened with death by cancer. The assault on him, though unlike my slow burn with cancer, scalds my body. I hurt as a result of his murder. I wear a mask and my cancer takes second place to my protection from COVID19. If cancer wins as a result, then it deserves that victory since there is nothing for me to do but honor the dead while I have the luck of my life.
Cancer cuts me loose in its maze. I wander around in search of an exit. Cancer keeps me busy as I bump into its closed spaces and must double back on myself and try a new avenue with the same dead-end result. Cancer laughs at my efforts to evade it. I keep trying, as I feel I must do if I do not wish to surrender. Flux on my part is everything.
I wake with his name on my tongue. I breathe on his behalf. I see him pinned to the road by three officers, the fourth standing guard, and I wish them gone and wish him to his feet. George Floyd splinters from his body into ours. We chant his name not simply out of a quest on his behalf, or in search of him, though both mean something, we say his name to count his presence in us.
George Floyd rounds street corners in long lines of marchers, his name echoes around the canyons of towers in financial and residential districts; he fills city squares worldwide; he blocks countless intersections, stops traffic on motorways, and bolsters out spirit with this multitude made of each of us alive in his name. We switch back and forth from grief to joy, grief and joy, from mourning his loss and that of so many, to affirming our intent (the crowd drawn from all quarters of society) to stop further losses.
The tax of cancer attaches to my skin. I see fishhooks all over my body donated by history and society. A history of trans-Atlantic slavery; a society built on racism. I do not bother to remove those hooks, more trouble to try, best to leave them in place rather than cause a flare up at the sight of each one that I remove. I have cut so many lines attached to those hooks. Worked against their tug until each broke and set me free with its gift of a barb in my skin.
The bait that I swallowed to catch that hook came out of nowhere and headed directly for my body without me trying to consume anything offered to me as temptation, or a tradeoff, or quid pro quo. The hooks sunk into me, aimed at my skin. I had no option but to wriggle free of them, or flow with their pull as they reeled me in. I opted to break free. Hence the hooks, enough to fill a large basket, that decorate my body.
I say this knowing that I belong to a group all of whom wear this evidence of someone or something trying to capture them or exacting a toll on their body by virtue of the suit of Black skin. There is a drag on the psyche of carrying so many hooks all aimed at Black skin. People see the barbs so often and so many of them there covering the person that they stop registering the presence of hooks on a human being. They replace the hooks with an attitude or they put on dark glasses to obliterate the sight and they see a Black body in history, as history, not human more a string of happenings that led to this relationship of White people with fishing lines and Black people in the water.
Fred D’Aguiar’s Letters to America (Carcanet, 2020) was a PBS Winter Choice. This extract is taken from his memoir of 2020, Year of Plagues (Harper, 2021).