Gorham High School teacher Dave Patterson joined Wednesday’s rally in Gorham. It turned out to be an emotional, telling experience. Photo courtesy of Dave Patterson

When my face presses into the parking lot asphalt, the chanting begins. It starts as a few hushed voices, then builds quickly, like brushfire, to a chorus of over a hundred: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” Our bodies splayed on the tar in humble protest, hands behind our backs, incantations expelled through taut pandemic masks.

My veins are still electric from the march through the streets of Gorham, a town where I’ve taught high school English for 11 years, a town whose roads I’ve driven and walked hundreds of times. At 2 Wednesday afternoon I saw the Facebook post that high school students, my students, the students I dearly love, had organized a protest. By 4 I was standing in front of the Gorham Municipal Center, ready to follow their lead.

The chanting around me continues. “I-can’t-breathe-I-can’t-breathe-I-can’t—.” A girl face down next to me stops shouting the rallying cry that moments ago spit from her lips. I finally understand that she’s crying. She tries to make the words come out, but the sobs smother her voice.

After only moments collapsed on the pavement in the death pose of George Floyd, my own breathing, minutes ago roiling with adrenaline from the 2-mile march through a sleepy, white Maine town, begins to labor. It strikes me that were my hands clasped by the cold metal of handcuffs, I would be incapacitated – the violent knee against my neck unnecessary, excessive, humiliating.

Before the march across town began, the father of a high school student was handed a bullhorn. His eyes bore his reluctance to address the swelling crowd. Pressing the blue mouthpiece to his face, he stated that his daughter asked him to speak. He explains that he’s biracial. He has always struggled with identity. His words were so plain, so naked, they made the back of my throat go dry. When he was finished, he passed the megaphone to the chief of police. Through a black mask, the blue-uniformed man praised the high school students for organizing the march, for reaching out to his department. He condemned the acts of the Minneapolis police officers. His words were pure, true. He asked a high school student with blond hair, someone I didn’t recognize, to come up and accept an award for her courage in organizing the protest. She accepted, cried out into the staticky bullhorn, then we marched.

More people are crying now as they attempt to bellow the mantra, that repeated over and over, begins to feel like a desperate prayer: “I-can’t-breathe-I-can’t-breathe.” From my vulnerable position, chest pressed to the pavement, I can’t see who’s crying and who’s still able to chant.

Five minutes in, with my own breathing strained, it becomes clear, the knee to the back of the neck wasn’t excessive – it was murderous.

Through my discomfort on the hard ground, I recall the faces of townspeople as we had marched. Some cheered from their front steps, fists raised in solidarity, their small children tucked in their laps. Others glowered through squinted eyes. A bare-chested man took a video with his smartphone. Lots of people took video. A road construction worker on the job barked, “Blue lives matter!” his voice lost in the overwhelming mass in which we moved. In the end, I was struck most not by the scowls, but by the dozens of indifferent faces, unsmiling, unaffected – chillingly so.

By now the sobs of a score of recumbent protesters offers a low harmony to the chorus: “I-can’t-breathe-I-can’t-breathe.” My body, numbed by the cruel pavement, suddenly feels pointed toward some kind of mecca, a United States of America where the Constitution finally overrides the racism of the institutions and the individuals under which it was signed. The beautiful America I preach to my students about, the same students who have urged me here, their bodies limp on the ground around me, pointing to the same holy land that our ancestors invoked with ideals so perfect, they seem almost impossible over 200 years later. Almost.

“I-can’t-breathe-I-can’t-breathe-I-can’t-breathe.” After 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the chanting stops. We hold our collective breath before we find the courage to stand up and face the truth of our lives once again.


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