We can’t breathe

Co-authored with Jayvy Gamboa

“I can’t breathe,” said George Floyd, a victim of police brutality who will be buried today, Tuesday, June 9;

“They can’t breathe,” doctors worldwide described patients who succumbed to COVID-19;

“We can’t breathe,” students protesting in Hong Kong and American cities when teargassed by police intent on dispersing them.

“We can’t breathe,” we now say here in the Philippines as a new anti-terrorism law perversely terrorizes us.

Racism and authoritarianism

We assumed that a global outbreak that led to hundreds of thousands dead and counting would knock us back into our senses. We thought that, finally, we would have a chance to reboot our systems – to be instruments of social justice, and not of oppression. We believed that a better post-pandemic society awaits us.

But while we were looking forward to this new reality, those in power who benefit from the status quo wittingly grab and kneel on our necks, depriving us of “air”: our freedoms, our rights, our voices, our very lives. As if saying, “No, we will not let you go.”

So much has happened while we are in – and since people have moved on from the pandemic – and have chosen to fight for greater causes.

Now, all over the world, we fight for “air”: manifestations of centuries-old systemic racism coupled with a violent and non-tolerant law enforcement in the United States of America, dismantling of democratic foundations and imposition of authoritarian pro-China institutions in Hong Kong, and railroading of anti-dissent and draconian measures couched in a recurring false promise to protect the people in our very own Philippines.

Three places gasping for air

In the USA, we see the ever-violent law enforcement purporting to return peace and order in communities – that they themselves broke by the brutal murder of African-American George Floyd last May 25, 2020. The merciless killing of Floyd, vivid in everyone’s mind as he struggled through the 8-minute long torture, re-inspired protests against systemic racism and police brutality nationwide, despite the threat of the pandemic, and which this article memorializes. And with President Trump adding more fuel to their anger by condoning violence, protesters have since been targets of rubber bullets, batons, tackles from the police.

America can’t breathe.

In Hong Kong, we see a looming authoritarianism led by China based on fabricated threats supposedly posed by the HK protesters to “national” security. Again, amid the pandemic, the national security law, that in effect desecrates the freedom of speech and assembly that Hong Kong enjoys unlike all other parts of China, was passed overwhelmingly by Beijing on May 28, 2020. Peaceful protests were confused with riots; Tiananmen vigils were deemed violations of social distancing rules; protesters-turned-“terrorists” were unlawfully detained. And with tear gas thrown at every major protest, Hong Kong weeps and gasps for air.

Hong Kong can’t breathe.

In the Philippines, we see a widespread and systematic crackdown on legitimate dissent and call for a more competent response to the pandemic. Like in the cases of USA and Hong Kong, in the midst of a pandemic, the Philippine Congress railroaded the Anti-Terror Bill and passed on June 3, 2020, certified urgent and a legislative priority of President Duterte. The proposed law allows arbitrary identification of terrorist organizations by a non-judicial body, longer and unconstitutional detentions, and little to no penalty for rights violators. The sheer leeway for abuse is precisely why Filipinos protested for the first time since the country was put on lockdown. And on the fateful Sunday, June 7, students, alumni, activists, and politically involved individuals against the bill woke up to a surge of fake accounts allegedly created by troll farms to, at the very least, sow fear and God knows what else will unfold in the days ahead.

There are 4 events to watch out for in the next few days and weeks: the manañita protests being planned for this Friday, June 12, which is Philippine Independence Day; the decision next Monday, June 15, on the cyberlibel case against Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa; a potential International Criminal Court decision anytime to proceed with the investigation of Duterte and cohorts for crimes against humanity, with such case inevitable in our view after the release last week of the United Nations report confirming extrajudicial killings committed by the police and the failure of government to investigate these (satisfying the complementarity requirement); and in July with Duterte delivering the State of the Nation Address (SONA) where the anti-terror bill will be highlighted and which for sure will be attended by many protests.

The Philippines can’t breathe. And it could get worse.

Perfect storm of protests and pandemic

Let us not forget that all of these are happening during the coronavirus outbreak. In fact, for greater clarity, all of these were “intentionally” made to happen at this time. Unlike the coronavirus pandemic that ran its course from nature to humans – of course, coupled with collective ecological irresponsibility on our part – these were deliberate and positively decided by actors. There is no one else accountable, but the authoritarian tendencies of people at the helm.

It is as if COVID-19 has not claimed enough lives.

It is as if COVID-19 has not broken enough families.

It is as if COVID-19 has not divided enough communities.

Now, the authorities want to suppress even more lives, and fundamental freedoms and rights – the very “air” and lifeline that democracies need to survive.

We call on leaders: that they may remember that the coronavirus crisis requires unity and not divisiveness. People are literally dying on our hospital beds at this moment; gasping for air with no one by their sides; latching to prayers for a better tomorrow; hoping to return to society.

And what society awaits them and is now before us? An equally “air”-deprived society.

Our COVID-19 survivors, as well as ourselves, do not deserve this nonsense.

Pandemic or not, while considering physical distancing, we – Americans, Hong Kongers, Filipinos, and others in the world similarly being suffocated (like Brazilians) must go out to the streets and protest, make our voices heard.

The right to breathe

While we are busy tending to our sick, and hope that those in power are one with us, they grabbed our necks from behind and pinned us. Clearly, it is not our ignorance, nor our complacence, nor our negligence that causes our suffocation. It is the deceitful maneuverings of those taking advantage of our vulnerabilities.

Today, we are breathless, but we cannot be breathless for too long, for we may not have anything left to fight for and anything left to fight with. That is why in situations where we cannot breathe, the only response is to break free for “air” to finally come in. Break free from systemic racism; break free from anti-democratic impositions; and break free from a government allergic to dissent.

“We can’t breathe,” we plead – not and never to the abuser – but to our dear neighbor, that they may help us break free. Let us plead and act on the pleas of each other, that we may live freely.

We have the right to breathe and no one can take that away from us. We have the right to breathe and we must fight for that right.

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