Introducing AGITATE! Volume 4 Breath and Death: COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and Virality

the way loss seeps
into neck hollows
and curls at temples
sits between front teeth
empty and waiting
for mourning to open
the way mourning stays
forever shadowing vision
shaping lives with memory
a drawer won’t close
sleep elusive
smile illusive
the only real is grief
forever counting the days
minutes missing without knowing
so that one day
you find yourself
showering tears
missing that love
like sugar
aches teeth

                                                —From the missing by Suheir Hammad[1]

Over these past two years, the authors in this volume, the editorial collective, and our communities across the world, have endured immense grief, devastation, and deepening precarity. This volume, “Breath and Death: COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and Virality,” grapples with the intersecting crises of settler colonialism, capitalism, and militarism that have been decimating people across the world throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It explores how the pandemic has collided with and exacerbated other plagues already reordering and stealing people’s lives. Taken together, the pieces of this volume offer powerful meditations on the intertwined, if dialectical, nature of breath and death, an imbrication that reverberated through George Floyd’s last words, uttered from beneath an officer’s knee: “I can’t breathe.”

Contributors to this volume linger on the simultaneous necessity and violence of breathing in the midst of theft of breath. They speak of learning to breathe with a scream as a Black man in the United States (Jordan Stark); of suffocating and choking under violent nationalism/s which relegate some bodies to second-class status (Pedram Baldari); of the labor of breathing, protesting, and building coalitions across movements amidst mourning the unceasing death of migrants at the hands of border and state regimes in the Balkans (Emina Bužinkić); and of the contestations to establish the cause of death in the very public killings of Black and Indigenous people by the police (Deondre Smiles). They remind us that for Black, Brown, Indigenous, Muslim, and other minoritized people across the world every breath has been an act of resistance well before the arrival of this breath-taking virus. They remind us that while a virus itself cannot be prejudiced, the societal systems that manifest its identification, transmission, treatment, and prevention always are.

For those subject to the violences of war, sanctions, occupation, colonialism, and capitalism, the virus is more devastating than a standalone health emergency. It interacts with the structural potencies of class, citizenship, race, gender, caste, able-bodiedness, and communal discrimination. Speaking from and of geographies as diverse as the US south, the Balkans, Bangladesh, North India, the High Arctic, Iran, Kashmir, Palestine, and the US Midwest, the pieces in this volume tell the stories of these multiple pandemics through art, poetry, and prose. US-led sanctions on Iran, militarized occupation in Palestine and Kashmir, police violence in the United States (Imagining Transnational Solidarities Research Circle – ITSRC), the enduring traumas of settler colonialism (Suzanne Chew), and the dehumanization and devaluation of labor (Richa Nagar and Richa Singh) all speak to the inextricability of breath and death.

Such interaction of the virus and long-standing structures of violence mean that the work of grieving, remembering, and mourning those who have passed on during the pandemic is impossible without addressing the breathlessness that imbued their lives. To grieve the loss of a mother-figure from the other side of the world becomes the bemoaning of the invisibility of women’s lives and labor (Efadul Huq). Memorializing lives lost on the migrant trails in the Balkans becomes a radical critique of the European border regime (selma banich and Marijana Hameršak). Honoring the activism, poetry, and potential of a revolutionary Adivasi activist-scholar who passed away unexpectedly is incompete without grappling with the epistemic violence inflicted on Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi people (Vishal Jamkar). Remembering the migrant workers in Indian cities who lost lives and livelihoods during COVID lockdowns is to confront the intensification of deadly anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit, and anti-poor violence in the country (Richa Nagar and Richa Singh). Those left grieving, mourning, and remembering also struggle to catch their breath.

Even as this volume highlights this moment of collective breathlessness and speaks powerfully to the social, political, viral, and ecological violences that cause shortness of breath, it insists that this is also a moment of life-making, strengthening political solidarities, new possibilities, and imaginaries. The threat of ecological and political failure prompts a rethinking of how art, poetry, and protest can bring us together (Katayoun Amjadi). The colliding of anti-Black and COVID-19 pandemics provokes a reimagining of the interaction of race and geography through the framework of AfroRuralFuturism (Nick Kleese and Sean Golden). The global outcry that followed the murder of George Floyd re-energized migrant rights activists and movements in the Balkans and birthed new transnational agitations against police violence and racism (Emina Bužinkić). In the midst of lockdowns, funding insecurities, and intense political turmoil, artists imagine new ways of liberating artistic practices from oppressive structures, negotiating locations of privilege and racialization, and challenging an institutionalized, hierarchical art world (ITSRC). The contributions in this volume, many of which emerge from long-standing agitational movements, offer us hope and point us to ways of breathing together. They are agitations against attempts to debilitate movements, artistic practices, and ways of living and being that resist cooptation.

The contributors and editors of this volume have worked across geographies to reflect on the killings, deportations, earthquakes, and COVID-19-surges that have shaken them. What we offer here is informed, then, by a subtext of lost homes and family members, and by a search for personal and collective healing. We invite you to immerse yourself in these pieces, so that you, too, can enter this co-agitation to grapple with the multiple crises that we are living through–even as “crisis” is the norm for those subjected to daily violence. We hope that this volume, which emerges from our ongoing commitment to transformative knowledge-making, will become one conduit among many to imagine new ways of being in this world. Drawing energies from the anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, and anti-capitalist agitations that have persisted in the midst of this pandemic, we offer a space for grieving together, the people, places, and communities we have lost. We celebrate, as well, the collectivity and co-creativity, the resistance and resilience that we have gained in the midst of sorrow.

This volume was conceived in the immediate aftermath of the brutal police murder of George Floyd, just a few miles away from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis-St.Paul, the institution through which AGITATE! is published. Through this volume, we want to address how Floyd’s murder is not one discrete incidence of anti-Black racism during an otherwise lethal but ‘prejudiceless’ pandemic. George Floyd’s murder is connected to the collision of transnational crises conveyed in these writings that together point to breath and death as a shared dialectic of today’s biopolitics: unjust determinations of who can and cannot breathe, whose breath this pandemic kills with intention, and what or who can breathe us back to life.

— The AGITATE! Editorial Collective
Emina Bužinkić
Hale Konitshek
Keavy McFadden
Nithya Rajan
Richa Nagar
Sara Musaifer
Sima Shakhsari

[1] Suheir Hammad, “the missing,” Poemfull

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