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David Dungay couldn’t breathe either!

Workers of the world unite! We shall overcome! The people united (‘and armed,’ some interject) will never be defeated! Sí, se puede (‘Yes, we can,’ motto of the United Farm Workers of America, proposed by Dolores Huerta, its co-founder during the 25-day fast by Cesar Chavez in Phoenix, Arizona)!


‘I can’t breathe!’ That the word or rather words in the street. It’s on t-shirts. It’s on buttons. It’s on posters. It’s on memes and thousands of posts on various social media platforms. It’s being shouted out in hundreds of protests all across the United States of America.

Why? Well, one man couldn’t breathe. Simple. Simple? Well!

George Floyd couldn’t breathe because the knee of a thug was pressed hard on his neck. A police officer’s knee. A white police officer’s knee on a black man’s neck. Since then we’ve seen countless videos of police brutality from all over the USA. Thousands of protestors have been arrested (is the ‘international community’ calling for sanctions, calling for UN peace-keepers to be sent to Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Washington DC etc.? Shhhh…..). Police dogs have been unleashed on  protestors. Handcuffed protestors have been assaulted. Police cars have waded into protesting people. Teargassing too, which in this Covid-19 pandemic moment amounts to biological warfare. 

But this is not about all that. Since George Floyd couldn’t breathe and indeed stopped breathing altogether, people have started talking about racism and police brutality in other countries. That’s how I got to know about David Dungay.

It happened in November 2015. David Dungy, a 26-year-old Dunghutti man from Kempse, Australia, suffering from diabetes and schizophrenia, was weeks away from being released from Long Bay Gaol in New South Wales. Guards stormed his cell when he refused to stop eating a packet of biscuits. He was dragged to another cell, held face down and injected with a sedative. The partial footage released to the public is supposed to have been harrowing.

This are his last words, as per the video:

I can’t breathe please!
Let me up!
I cant breathe!
I cant breathe!
I cant breathe!
I cant breathe, please don’t!
Let me up, please!
Help Please!
I can’t breathe!
I can’t breathe!
I can’t breathe!
I can’t breathe!
I can’t!
I can’t!

The New South Wales coroner, Derek Lee, determined that none of the five guards should face disciplinary action since their conduct, in his view, ‘was limited by systemic efficiencies in training’ and was ‘not motivated by malicious intent’ but ‘was a product of misunderstanding.’  Neat wordage, that.

Leetona Dungay, David’s mother, asks the pertinent question: ‘If Aboriginal men held down a white man until he was dead, where do you think those men would be? In jail for life.’

George Floyd had to stop breathing or rather have his breathing stopped so I could learn about David Dungay, Kumanjayi Walker, Cherdeena Wynne, Joyce Clarke and Tanya Day and Ms Dhu, the known names of First Nations peoples killed in Australian prisons.

Maybe the Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison is living in a different country from Australian citizen Thalia Anthony, Professor of Law, University of Technology, Sydney. Morrison reacted to the murder of George Floyd thus: ‘And so as upsetting and terrible is the murder that took place, and it is shocking … I just think to myself how wonderful a country is Australia.’

Thalia Anthony has responded to Morrison’s notion of a ‘Wonderful Australia’ in an article titled ‘“I can’t breathe!” Australia must look in the mirror to see our own deaths in custody,’ published in the website

It is ‘wonderful’ because we do not see the horror inflicted by the criminal justice system on First Nations people. It is ‘wonderful’ because we do not ever call their deaths in custody ‘murder,’ using instead the euphemisms of ‘accident’ or ‘natural causes.’ It is ‘wonderful’ because we have so normalized the passing of First Nations people that we are never shocked when they are killed. It is ‘wonderful’ because we have a vocabulary to defend police officers responsible for racist violence, including people doing an ‘extremely difficult job.’

We know she’s writing about Australia, but if we didn’t it would be a narrative that describes First Nations people and non-white peoples in the USA. And Canada too, let’s not forget.
There’s police brutality that stops people breathing. There’s institutionalized, systemic racism that stifles people.

Knees on necks. It’s not just the George Floyd story, not just a shorthand for a North American narrative played out over and over again for several centuries. And ‘I can’t breathe’ is a literal and metaphoric capture-all statement of fact that it uttered again and again and again but is deftly deleted from the story simply because it would tear apart the ‘wonderful’ picture of these nations.

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