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I Can't Breathe

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

This week's writing prompt is intended as a mark of respect and solidarity with the family of George Floyd who was killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25 - as well as others who are brutally harassed, attacked or murdered by policing authorities around the world.

The sun shone over the white man Abraham’s Gingham Plantation in Georgia with an intensity that foretold of a very hot day to come. The natural human reaction by the plantation slaves was to stay indoors a little longer.

Their overseer, Greg, was a man feared by them all for his cruelty, up to and beyond the point of death. In the cool of the night, they would murmur among themselves that he was the devil’s own apprentice.

George, who had skin his mother said resembled the darkest of nights, was now aged twenty. Tall, he had a kind and open face that only the hardest-hearted could find any offence in. He was due to start his day’s work picking cotton, along with others who had only ever known an enslaved existence.

Now, ready for work, he stood outside the shack he shared with his mother and siblings. He was dressed in ragged clothing that could not even be patched, and which hung off him like a dead animal’s stripped skin. Barefoot, he had slung over his broad shoulder a large brown canvas bag for the cotton he would pick that day and every day still left to him.

Before setting out, he did just as his mother had shown him, raising his head to look at the sky to estimate the time. With his left hand shielding his eyes, he could see from the position of the sun that it was now about 10 am, which meant he was late. Just as fear rippled through him like the sharp sting of the whip he’d endured when aged just nine, he knew he had to move quickly to evade Greg’s anger. The man seemed to appear from nowhere, just like George’s fellow slaves had described. He must be the devil, George thought.

Just then, as George hurried towards the cotton field, a bellowing voice shouted, ‘STOP!’

Now the heat seemed to engulf George’s whole body. He was perspiring across his back and belly, with sweat trickling down his face into his eyes, blurring his vision – and although he couldn’t see clearly who was ahead of him, he could hear and feel Greg’s hateful energy.

‘Come here,’ the voice commanded. George’s legs felt like the weight of the caskets of dead slaves, but he pushed himself forward as he felt his mother’s presence whispering to him not to be afraid.

When he reached Greg, by now a towering figure of white rage, George lowered his head and waited for his punishment.

In an instant and without a word, Greg grabbed George by the neck and forced him to the ground. Then in one deliberate action, Greg placed both his hands around George’s neck and squeezed. George suddenly felt confused. As his mind dimmed, he realised that this wasn’t the usual punishment. No, it was unusual for its savagery, was his thought.

And in that moment, George cried out with his first and last defiant breath, ‘I can’t breathe’.

Wil Roach

Blindsided. Targeted. Supremacy delivered with a bolt of aggression. A heavy knee, a knee of authority. Warfare on my throat. Vulnerable and scared.

My name is George. I'm alone. Pressure builds with spitting words of hatred that fly into my orbit. I can't breathe. What is going on ? Hands are shaking, I'm unable to speak. Clammy mouth. My heart pounds, racing, racing. Piss in my pants. I am no longer a man. I am nothing in this moment. I don't identify with myself. What is my crime ? My skin is black, my heart is gold. My community is my heartland.

My gentle hands move slowly, gracefully. Baton, gun, instruments of destruction wave dangerously in my face. The knee adjusts, wedging its way harder and more forcefully, separating my head and torso. I am divided. Sweat, tears and dignity weep out of me. A man once, now relegated to a target. I'm not human in this moment. My pulse is nothing more than a clock, counting my fate. Flashes of colours, bold red, an alarm. Screaming, shouting. Loudness. The sunshine burns against the gravity of aggression. I remain limp. My silence driven by fear, I dare not move. I cannot breathe. My family ... I am gone.

Jody Harper

I watched the video of a man slowly dying under the pressure of the cop's knee, and burst into tears. Now I cannot write anything more. I am too sad. Jenny Neil

‘I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!’ James screamed in desperation. His little face was contorted as he struggled beneath me.

We were lying together in the centre of the loungeroom. I was sitting on his legs and tickling his bare belly. I stopped and looked at his face. He was gasping for breath. Frowning, I asked, ‘How come you’re able to talk but you’re not able to breathe?’ James started laughing uncontrollably again.

Holding my hands in the air, ‘I’m not even touching you now. This is all you.’

‘It’s your fault! It’s your fault! I can’t stop!’ His words disappeared into convulsions of laughter.

Pulling down his t-shirt, I rolled off his legs and sat on the carpet beside him. His eyes closed, James coughed and sighed, trying to regain control. Opening his eyes, he saw me sitting beside him and started laughing again.

Rolling my eyes. ‘Come on, try to get it together.’

The laughter subsided to chuckles. ‘Dad?’ he said as he sighed again, lying on his back to look at the ceiling.


‘Why did those policemen in the United States kill that black man?’

I tried to think of a logical answer, but none came to me. ‘Well, there wasn’t a reason to kill him. They just killed him by kneeling on his neck. That’s why the people are really angry and they’re rioting in all the cities.’

‘You sat on me to stop me from moving, so you could tickle me and make me laugh.’

‘That’s right. But when you told me you couldn’t breathe, I stopped tickling you.’

Copyright David Benn

Photos Wix & Wiki.

SSOA writers' blogs are made possible through the support of City of Sydney grant assistance.


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