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Excerpt: The triple-sidedness of “I can’t breathe”

Juneteenth (19 June) is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. In the spirit of this day, we are featuring an excerpt from “The triple-sidedness of “I can’t breathe”: The COVID-19 pandemic, enslavement, and agro-industrial capitalism” by Don Nonini (published in Focaal, Vol. 2021: Issue 89).

On Juneteenth,1 Friday, June 19, 2020, unionized workers of the Durham Workers Assembly of Durham, North Carolina, held a rally in front of Durham Police Headquarters to “defund the police” in support of the national Black Lives Matter movement protesting in massive numbers in the streets of US cities and being met with overwhelming police repression. Black Lives Matter marches in the streets of cities and towns of the United States continued, as the world looked on.

Circulars for the rally bore the following message: “Workers in the US are currently facing two tragic pandemics. The first is the plight of essential workers, going to work every day to risk their lives amidst COVID-19, which has now resulted in the tragic deaths of over 100,000 people. The second is the reality of racism and police violence. Both disproportionately impact black workers.” Elsewhere the circular stated, “Exposed by the virus—‘Essentially’ Involuntary Servitude,” and went on to state that “Tens of millions of workers find themselves in a condition of involuntary servitude, no effective voice in their conditions of work, their health or the security of their livelihood.”

Is the idea that workers, especially black workers, are facing two pandemics of racialized capitalism and of COVID-19 only a figure of speech, or is it more than rhetoric?

I see a profoundly intuited reality referenced here and one also theorized in concepts like racial capitalism and carceral capitalism by scholars writing in the Black radical and allied traditions that are avowedly antiracist, anticapitalist, feminist, and (prison) abolitionist.2 There is an historical relationship—the reality of imperialism, racism and the expansion of global capitalism—that animates the relationship between these two pandemics. Each pandemic has a distinct logic intertwined with the other made evident in the political economy of global capitalism, particularly agro-industrial capitalism and its connections to slavery—to “involuntary servitude.” The history of globalized agro-industrial capitalism ties together not only viruses with people and industrially produced animals but also sets the terms for both capitalism’s “normal” exploitation of wage labor of some workers and its extraordinary expropriation of the labor, lives, and property of other working people across the planet—whether urban African American in the United States, Eastern European contract workers in Germany, North African farm laborers in Spain, ex-farmers forming the “floating population” of urban China, the Roma of Hungary, or the indigenous migrants to the South American megacities, to name some who are well known.

The insurgency of Black Lives Matter during the months of May–June 2020 has been widely theorized by its leaders/organic intellectuals such as Patrisse Khan-Cullers (Khan-Cullers and Bandele 2017) and others.3 It also has its own dynamics situated within the politics, economics, and ecologies of settler colonialism in North America, as this article seeks to demonstrate. That said, the wide turnout of protests inspired by Black Lives Matter in the streets of European cities and towns (e.g., London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Milan, Kraków, Dublin, Manchester) demonstrates that the European left has strongly shown its ongoing antiracist solidarity with African American struggles and is seeking to come to terms with Europe’s own troubled imperial history of enslavements and challenging its current neo-nationalist or fascist resurgence under declining neoliberal capitalism (Kalb 2020). Future initiatives of both solidarity with Black Lives Matter and critique of US transnational capitalism can be predicted to come out of these engagements by the European left. Thus, it is particularly appropriate now to provoke these by turning attention toward the specific connections between the “peculiar institution” of US slavery, the global pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement and what animates it.

These connections are nested within the history of modern agro-industrial capitalism.

A part of the Berghahn Open Anthro Collection!

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology
Managing and Lead Editor: Luisa Steur, University of Amsterdam
Editor-at-Large: Don Kalb, University of Bergen

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