The Ugly Tactics that Police Use to Make it Very Hard to Breathe

“I can’t breathe”. Eric Garner’s last words, which he repeated 11 times, have echoed through a global movement comprised of millions. At the heart of it we see a collective calling for the liberation from oppression of different bodies: black, brown, transgender, bisexual, indeed all breathing bodies. Breath and its relationship to air, politics and resistance constitute the very heart of a political movement which inspires every body.


The calling for respiratory breathing has both a metaphorical and a biological reference. The metaphorical and the biological are in fact deeply intertwined when it comes to the act of breathing that which we commonly identify as air. Air provides the food that biologically allows for life but it is also the medium from which inspiration originates. The etymological roots for inspiration is the Latin compound verb ‘inspirare (in-spirare)’, or literally ‘to blow into’. To be inspired means to take something inside. What we take into the body is the air we breathe, but also the world from which we draw our feelings for love, hate, joy, compassion and anger. The roots of what we mean by breathing are therefore as much metaphorical as they are biological.

When we say that all our bodies want to breathe, because they all matter, we mean two interrelated things. We mean that we want to breathe free from strangulation, gassing, chokeholds and others forms of violence imposed on the biological relationship we share with the air. We also mean that we want to be free from the stuff that pollutes the air, which makes breathing difficult and inspiration impotent. These two forms of violence on our bodies are as interrelated as our resistance to it. The act of breathing is what unites them.

The attack on breathing

The state increasingly deploys tear gas and other chemical weapons as a means to discipline citizens. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk analyses such ‘gas attacks’ during the period of the two World Wars in his aptly titled Terror from the Air. He labels them as a modern form of terrorism because they directly target the environmental conditions that make the life of the victims possible.

“The terror of our times consists in the emergence of a knowledge of modernized elimination that passes through a theory of the environment, the strength of which is that it enables the terrorist to understand his victims better than they understand themselves” – Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air, Semiotext(e) 2009.

The gassing of bodies, which is forbidden in international law but allowed for domestic ‘law enforcement’, is only one among the many strategies deployed in the state’s attempt to silence its population. The method of ‘choke holding’ is becoming an increasingly popular policing technique, especially in the US. A report from the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board mentions 1128 complaints of chokeholds in the past five and a half years. It bears noting that this number only refers to ‘registered’ complaints. The actual number of chokeholds in New York alone can be expected to be much higher. The same report makes abundantly clear that the vast majority (62.2 percent) of attacks were against black breathing bodies.

But the body is not only disciplined and punished by the police-sanctioned deprivation of air. The state also imposes violence onto the body by polluting the air with the toxic chemicals of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. I am not referring here only to the physiological and medical consequences of global warming, which of course beyond any rational doubt are lethal, but I am also referring to the pollution of the air more widely which makes breathing difficult.

report published earlier this year by the World Health Organisation stated that seven million people suffer premature deaths annually due to air pollution worldwide. Indeed the report reminds us that this is more than the total casualties from AIDS, road injuries and diabetes combined. The vast majority of premature deaths occur in China where CO2 emission levels are believed to be almost double to those of the US. The lack of breathable air is in China, as it is elsewhere, the direct result of the state’s need for economic growth. Research published earlier this year shows that 22 percent of carbon monoxide pollution emitted in China derives from the production of goods meant for export. The same report attributes 21 percent of export-related Chinese emissions to China-to-US exports. The pollution of the air is the inevitable outcome of an interstate system that is more interested in the health of the economy than in the well-being of the bodies that comprise the population.

Breathing the air, animating our bodies, requires us to work together to clean it. We cannot depend on states to resolve the problem of pollution. These industrial Molochs are instead part of the problem. The state would historically not have been possible without it. Its primary function is to take breath away, either through the violent means of strangulation or by way of chemical intoxication. It cannot help but attack the air we breathe. 

Together we resist

Many of the Eric Garner movement’s slogans refer to the idea that "when we breathe, we breathe together". It conveys the very simple, albeit immensely powerful, message that our bodies share the air together regardless of our ethnic identities, gender or nationalities. The air we breathe is what unites our bodies. It is what makes us, as a collective, strong. I inhale the air that you exhale. When the state decided to squeeze the last breath out of Eric Garner’s body, the air was stifled and we all died a little.

“If Eric Garner cannot breathe, then we cannot breathe. If Michael Brown no longer breathes, we cannot breathe. If Tamir Rice does not breathe, we cannot breathe.” – Jan Willis

The air is a medium which is radically democratic. The air is not a politics of ‘mine and thine’. Your words are yours, but your air is mine and what is mine is yours. When you inhale the air I exhale, we share the medium that makes us both. The air belongs to everybody and to no one. The air is freedom, equality and solidarity.

The air is taken away from us; “we cannot breathe”. Let that dictum form the response to the attack on the common medium that intimately bonds us. To be sure, there is no other answer than to revolt against the forces that threaten to suck the life out of the source from which all inhale and exhale. It is in our united calling for the powers of the air that together we feel one. As the revolutionary Frantz Fanon wrote: “when we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” With every breath we take, we become stronger. The breath is a calling for air which chooses life over death, the collective over the individual and inspiration over expiration.

A collective calling for air is not only a desire for oxygen at a time of unprecedented environmental pollution. The air has historically also always been the carrier of inspiration and the source of absolute freedom. Our gasping for air occurs at a time in which both are either violently repressed or made impossible by strict regimes of austerity and police brutality. We cannot breathe because the air is congested and polluted. If air is freedom, then the breath is its radical calling. With every breath we take, we become stronger.

Marijn Nieuwenhuis teaches Political Geography at the University of Warwick. He writes on the politics of the air.

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