‘I Can’t Breathe’: A Year of Unrest in America Through the Lens of Joshua Rashaad McFadden

Courtesy Joshua Rashaad McFadden

A portfolio of powerful photography documents the experiences of Black people in the US, in the face of police brutality and systemic racism

Along with the rest of the world, I was coping with the effects of social isolation during New York’s shutdown in response to COVID-19. Since then, the pandemic has changed our lives as we know it, yet for Black Americans this virus hasn’t been the only trial we’ve faced. Racism and police brutality seem to lie in wait for our lives. Much of my photographic work aims at shedding light on these and other issues within the Black diaspora.

On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was murdered by Minneapolis police in the street. Outrage, protests and social media all erupted as the video footage circulated of a police officer forcing his knee to Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, sequentially choking him to death while three other officers aided the act, with bystanders watching. “I CAN’T BREATHE” escaped Floyd numerous times during the confrontation as he called out to his already deceased mother, straining for his final breaths.

These words became an outcry, a plea and a question of whether police can see humanity. It’s a phrase we’ve heard before and it echoes, reminding us of the lack of compassion and empathy, and the brutal nature that policing Black bodies foregrounds. Eric Garner and countless others cried out, “I can’t breathe” as police officers took their lives. When Floyd’s life was stolen, the entire world’s heart broke. I felt it, too. For so long, white America has drawn upon reasons to feel impartial towards law enforcement’s killing of Black people. However, with no other distractions during a pandemic, the world watched as police officers again revealed an undeniable act of racism to the masses. American citizens had no choice but to watch and choose what side of history they would be on.

After hearing the news of Floyd, I was compelled to travel from Rochester, New York, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, not only to document the protests but to bear witness to the stories of this community and see its truth. Unfortunately, my time on the ground didn’t stop with Floyd’s death. I drove to Atlanta, Georgia, and the very night I arrived, word began to circulate about the police killing of Rayshard Brooks. I followed Breonna Taylor’s case in Louisville, Kentucky, and the revelation of the murder of Daniel Prude in my hometown. I witnessed first-hand the stories of these communities, families of the deceased and protesters laying it all on the line. The summer of 2020 overlapped with what seemed like war zones and standoffs between police and the demonstrators who just wanted justice. Fires, tear gas, rubber bullets, riot gear and curfews appeared to burn America’s illusion of justice and an intact democracy.

As this year closes, I can’t help but reflect on the nation’s notion of progress and what remains to be done. This year has been a worldwide acknowledgment of the Black Lives Matter movement, an admission that there’s a problem of degradation of Black people worldwide, especially in the United States, and that it’s a systemic and historic one.

Joshua Rashaad McFadden is an American visual artist whose primary medium is photography. His solo exhibition I Believe I’ll Run On opens at the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, on 9 July 2021.

A clear day in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is quickly clouded with the evening’s portion of smoke from local fires as protestors line the streets demanding justice for another unarmed Black man killed by a police officer. More than anger, the death of George Floyd spurs a level of despair that is tangible within the city of Minneapolis and across the country.
Protesters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, march in unity to protect their very existence against a police system too often claiming their lives.
The heartbroken community of Minneapolis pays their last respects to the lives lost as a result of police violence. The local ‘Say Their Names Cemetery’ is a symbol of honour, unity, and resilience while sending a message of unwavering determination for justice for Black lives.
Atlanta protesters encounter a heated face-off with local law enforcement at the cusp of the police killings of both George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks.
Unnerving climates surrounding social unrest in African-American communities reveal the scarcely discussed enigma of the Black law enforcement officer.
Breonna Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, stands strong in front of her daughter’s makeshift memorial at Jefferson Square on 14 July 2020. The local park in Louisville, Kentucky, remains the place of continuous protests against racism and police brutality in the name of Breonna Taylor.
Friends of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman unjustly killed in a police raid, stand at the water’s edge in Louisville while painfully reflecting on her life and the impact she made on theirs. Left to right: Shadai Parr, 27, Elysia Bowman, 25, Erinicka Hunter, 26, Shatanis Vaughn, 27.
A memorial for Daniel Prude sits near the site of his death. Prude, 41, was suffocated by police in Rochester, New York, only two months before the police killing of George Floyd set off protests across the United States. Mourning community members added candles to the site.

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