Poet and novelist Ben Okri calls for justice, listening, and for an end to silence.
A time comes when the cry for justice overwhelms the lands. A people suffer brutalisation by the police, endure all shades of discrimination, are the first to lose their jobs and are the ones who die the most when the pandemic strikes.
And then one day, in Minneapolis, a police officer has a black man in a chokehold for more than eight minutes, and the man says ‘I can’t breathe’ thirteen times before he dies and the world erupts.
It should have erupted long ago. So many murders, so much injustice directed against the blacks, and so much silence. The silence was waiting to erupt. But it had to be the end of all our silences, the black silence and the white.
Perhaps now in this pandemic we all know what it means when a human being says ‘I can’t breathe.’
We all know what injustice is. We all know what racism is. We all know the gradations of it. And yet we keep silent. So many people expect you to bear the racism directed against you in a thousand visible and invisible ways in silence. You are meant to endure it. You are meant to deny it. You are meant to spare others the confrontation with their conscience, their humanity. Till the day when a man, being choked to death by institutional racism, says ‘I can’t breathe.’ And then you know what he means.
It’s time to wake up the world. It’s time to join this struggle for the basic human right to not be discriminated against, not be brutalised, excluded, pressed down, or made socially expendable.
If this time in isolation has taught us anything it is that we now know what it means to be able to breathe. We feel what it means to be free.
People have behaved as if the reality of black people, which they would not accept for themselves, is acceptable for others.
The world must change. We must all fight for one another’s freedom. For the first time in a long time white and black people are linked in this protest about depriving one human being the basic right to breathe.
Black lives matter. Let’s redefine what it means to be human. Come out of the tower of colour. Step out of its confines. Tear off the blindfold of race. See what is happening. Feel what is happening. Open your hearts. Tell the world that ‘I can’t breathe’ is unacceptable.
Let’s expose the fraudulence of racism once and for all. Let’s chase its demons out of our subconscious, out of our societies, out of the invisible web by which a people are made to live less than the full possibilities of their being.
© 2020 Ben Okri - benokri.co.uk