Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

I can't breathe

Mohammed Arafat | 28-06-2020

Gaza Palestinian artist Ayman Alhossary with his mural in memory of George Floyd

I wake up every morning around 7:30 a.m., listening to the sound of my breath. Since George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis police in late May, I have watched the video of his murder again and again, listening to him cry out: “I can’t breathe.” I resist the impulse to grab my phone from my bedside table to watch it again. Hearing him struggle for air while a police officer pins him to the pavement with a knee on his neck is just too painful. But I convince myself that the pain of watching the video is nothing compared to what Floyd felt. And so, I watch again, transfixed. 

Floyd was so helpless and vulnerable under the knees of these police officers who were supposed to protect people and act as models of correctness. Instead, we see how little they valued his life, begging the question: Why? Why does his life matter less? 

Tears sting my eyes, anger and sorrow battle in me as I watch him take his last breaths, insisting, “I can’t breathe.” As a Palestinian from Gaza, I feel profound empathy for Floyd. The scene is all too familiar. Gazans know what it’s like to have a knee on our neck, cutting off our oxygen, slowly suffocating us. “I can’t breathe” are words that have shadowed me and my family for decades as we suffered under a merciless occupation and careless regime. 

I couldn’t breathe – the first time I saw a huge Israeli armored fighting vehicle roaring into our suburb when I was only 9 years old in 2000. 

I couldn’t breathe — every time machine guns fired and bullet casings hit the concrete, ringing in my ears (“bullet butts,” as we called them back home). 

I couldn’t breathe — when the dominant Palestinian political parties battled for control in 2006, not caring who got in the way. 

A Gaza farmer by the Israeli border. All he wants is to be able to farm in peace. (Photo by Pam Bailey)

I couldn’t breathe — when my cousin was murdered by Israeli occupying forces in 2011, shot while picking strawberries in a field near the Israeli border.  

I couldn’t breathe — when we were forced to evacuate our home and stay with my uncle for many long weeks during the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014. 

I couldn’t breathe — when I fled Gaza and sat, sweltering, in the middle of the Sinai peninsula in a crowded bus for over 14 hours with no restroom. 

Even now that I’ve left Gaza, I still can’t breathe — knowing my friends and family are stuck there in what many call an open-aired prison. 

I still can’t breathe — knowing bureaucracy and fear of being stuck once again prevent me from hugging my family and drinking a cup of mint tea together. 

And I still can’t breathe — when watching the video of George Floyd’s murder as he gasps his last, haunting words.

I come from a place where violence is a daily reality. I thought leaving Gaza would put my mind at ease and free me from pain and terror. Unfortunately, it seems Gaza is not the only place where racism leads to violence. The United States is still perpetuating its racist past. Watching these atrocities happen over and over, year after year, even in a country that is looked to so many as a beacon of hope is so disheartening. The world doesn’t seem to evolve.

One thing that has changed over the years: We now watch these atrocities almost real time on social media. 

I can’t imagine how Floyd’s mother felt watching the video of her son’s last moments. But I do know how my aunt felt when her son was killed on that strawberry farm. Maybe that is the biggest difference between my aunt and Floyd’s mother: the only thing my aunt saw was her son’s body. Floyd’s mother, on the other hand, saw her son take his last breath. And she has, unfortunately, witnessed his death again and again—every time she browses social media. 

But this video helped make Floyd’s murder international news and motivated hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and elsewhere to fill the streets and protest, not just for justice for Floyd but to affirm that Black lives matter.

It’s been nine years since my cousin was killed. My aunt called the other day, as she usually does when she sees something important happening in the United States. Having seen the video of Floyd’s murder, she asked me: “Do you think my son’s murder would have become international news if it had been recorded?” No, I answered. I cited examples, such as Mohammed Al-Durra and numerous protesters in the Great Return March, whose murders also were captured on video. Their killings did not bring justice for them or the Palestinian cause. My aunt went silent.

Such videos can incite outrage. They can and should spark protests. But to address the racist underpinnings of this type of violence, we need to educate ourselves and act

Sadly, many people have been socialized to fear or think less of others, fertilizing the grounds for hate. Instead, what we need is an ideology of understanding and accepting. Just as children grow up learning to love their own families, so too can we teach ourselves to love the larger human family. 

Despite the pain I’ve experienced, when I open my heart to people who are different from me, I end up loving them. If we all open our hearts to others, life can be different; racism will gradually decrease. The murder of George Floyd is yet another wake-up call that brings us all together. Even if we’re angry or apathetic about the hundreds of years of systemic oppression, abuse, rape, murder, theft and tyranny in nearly every part of the world, it’s also obvious that many of us share common desires.

To all my American brothers and sisters who are people of color, please know I feel your pain, even though I don’t presume to understand just how deep it goes. Palestinians stand in solidarity with you. We too protest and dream of justice. None of us can truly breathe until every oppressed person in this world gets to breathe freely. 

Strength and power to those who fight for their rights and for justice.


Posted: June 28, 2020

Mentor: Ben Gass

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