‘I Can’t Breathe’
In his last conscious moments, George Floyd pleaded for the chance to breathe and called out for his mother as a Minneapolis police officer held a knee against his neck for seven minutes. Floyd, a Black man, died on May 25 at the age of 46 while in police custody. The world would soon hear his last words. Not in the moment he spoke them, but throughout the months to follow, his words echoed across the world, in news stories, in conversations, in courtrooms and in minds. Witnesses to his final moments filmed his arrest and uploaded the videos to social media. As his friends and family mourned the man they describe as loving, good and unifying, demonstrations erupted around the world demanding justice for George Floyd. His story spoke to the world when George Floyd no longer could.
Almost five months after his death, Floyd’s story continues to fuel conversations around police brutality, the criminal justice system, racism, and police procedures and policies.
We, the Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) Art Committee aimed to keep a spotlight on George Floyd and these conversations through a display of his last words in light on the outside of Memorial Union, a campus building operated by our parent organization the Wisconsin Union, on Oct. 8 from 7-9 p.m. We displayed his words in a continuous loop throughout that time. When Michael Johnson of Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County suggested displaying George’s words on one of the Union’s campus buildings, we agreed wholeheartedly to make that possible. Because this conversation is not and can never be over. We mourn with our community the loss of George and embrace the uncomfortable, important dialogue that can happen when art helps shine a light on injustice.
George Floyd’s death shocked the world and left so many speechless. We, as a Committee, believe that, sometimes, when words fail us, art comes in to express what we cannot. Art inspires emotion, moves observers to action, and helps us process.
Minneapolis Police Department Chief Medaria Arradondo said this in a statement: “[Derek] Chauvin had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for over seven minutes, and for those last minutes he knew Floyd was non-responsive.” He went on to say in the statement that, “The officers knew what was happening―one intentionally caused it and the others failed to prevent it. This was murder―it wasn’t lack of training.”
As you read George Floyd’s words, we hope that you take time to listen, reflect and connect. Take time to learn about Black experiences with law enforcement and criminal justice and listen to their ideas on building a better, safer world. Then, we encourage you to give yourself space and moments to reflect on what you’ve learned. Connect with others. Don’t be afraid to ask for change from the people around you, the university, Madison, Wisconsin, the United States and the world.
This project and our call-to-action are part of a commitment that we made to you in June to stand with those fighting for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many other people of color who have died in police custody. We promised to make a change, to hold ourselves accountable, and to support Black Indigenous People of Color and help ensure their voices are heard.
We believe art can teach, heal, and help promote change and understanding. We hope you’ll join us on this journey and thank Michael Johnson for this idea to help our community along that journey. This important work continues on Oct. 9 with the debut of “We Still Here,” an exhibition of protest photography by Kenechi Unachukwu, in Gallery 1308, Union South. We will provide additional information at union.wisc.edu/art.