A police officer in Indiana who also owns a T-shirt company has created a missive aimed at Eric Garner supporters in the form of a shirt slogan. The company, South Bend Uniform, is selling black T-shirts with white letters with the message “Breathe Easy: Don’t Break the Law” for $7.95 each. It’s a twist on the popular protester slogan “I can’t breathe” that has been used across the country following the grand jury decision against the officer who put Garner in a chokehold that contributed to his death. Video that captured Garner’s final moments recorded him telling the officer 11 times “I can’t breathe.”
Indiana TV station WSBT reports that the T-shirts are the brainchild of Jason Barthel, a police officer and business owner from the small town of Mishawaka, Indiana. He told the TV station that the shirts are selling rather quickly with more than 100 orders online and that his phone has “been ringing off the hook.”
Despite the shirt’s message, Barthel said he has nothing against people who have been wearing black t-shirts with the slogan “I Can’t Breathe” in support of Eric Garner and his family. Numerous professional and college athletes have very publicly worn “I Can’t Breathe” shirts since the grand jury announcement in Garner’s case. Despite that, Barthel insists he is not out to stir up trouble.
“We are not here to do anything negative to the public,” Barthel told WSBT. “We’re here to protect the public and we want you to breathe easy knowing that the police are here to be with you and for you and protect you.”
Despite Barthel’s reassurances, the shirts have generated a storm of controversy among those who support the Garner family and have spoken out against excessive use of police force.
Among those against the shirts is at least one member of the local district council, who is asking stores not to sell them.
“We believe that people should be able to breathe easy no matter what they’re doing. Police should not take the right to breathe into their own hands,” South Bend District Council President Oliver Davis told The Daily News.
The death of Garner at the hands of a New York City police officer came around the same time as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The decision of grand juries in both cases to not indict the responsible officers has led to a national storm of controversy over the admissible use of police force and its sometimes unintended consequences.
— N.O.T.O.R.I.O.U.S.™ (@MrMilitantNegro) December 17, 2014
The reaction online has been largely against the sale of the T-shirts, including such messages to the company as “shame on you” posted by people on Twitter and at least one Change.org petition calling the anti-Eric Garner T-shirts “a disgusting and calloused statement on race relations in our nation.”