A restaurant in Spokane, Washington, is taking some heat for a sign they used to support a local man who was killed there in August. The sign used a turn of the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” which, of course, became a rallying cry for many following the death of Eric Garner in New York this summer.
According to the Spokesman-Review, Delbert Belton, a WWII veteran living in Spokane, was killed in August. One teenager, Kenan Adams-Kenard, who is black, pleaded guilty and received 20 years in prison. Another is still awaiting trial.
Following Kenard’s guilty plea, Annie Pennington, a waitress at the Hillside Inn, decided to show some support for Belton. Belton’s nickame around town was “Shorty,” so when she changed the sign outside the Hillside Inn to read “Shorty Can’t Breathe Either,” she thought she was just rallying the town to show the kind of support Garner received earlier this year.
“We did it in honor of Shorty because he’s a selfless, helpless old man, and if we don’t take care of our grandpas, no one will.”
Locals were understandably upset at the death of their neighbor, doubly so at what they thought was an unjust sentence for Kenard. Retired local teacher Rebecca Franklin felt Kenard deserved a harsher punishment for his crime.
“The plea bargain was not looked on favorably by the customers that come in here,” she said.
Pennington insists there was nothing malicious or intentional in the sign. She just wanted to show support for a local community member, and thought he deserved the kind of attention she’d seen others receive.
“It’s nothing racial.”
The NAACP, however, is not pleased with Penningtons’s take on the “I Can’t Breathe” movement. Newly elected NAACP President Rachel Dolezal said the sign can’t help but draw comparisons to Garner and the national movement his case inspired.
“Even if the intention is not to be associated with that, using the same words implies an association. People will connect it to that issue. It’s just really sad, because it seems like it’s potentially a confusion of the intention behind the I Can’t Breathe movement.”
According to Dolezal, the “I Can’t Breathe” movement is intended to draw attention to a pattern of unarmed black people being killed by police. According to the New Republic, 550 police killings went unreported in 2012.
Dolezal said it would have been easy to comment on Belton’s death without using the “I Can’t Breath” slogan and drawing the obvious comparison. Dolezal and Pennington did meet to discuss the sign. And while Pennington declined to comment on the encounter, Dolezal said Pennington got defensive and asked Dolezal to leave when she expressed her concerns.
For now, the Hillside Inn has no plans to take down the sign. The locals are adamant that they meant no harm by it, and stand by their right to free speech. Dolezal maintains her opposition to the sign, claiming the impact of the sign goes beyond the restaurant’s intentions.
“It’s a public statement,” she said. “The dialogue is going to happen, whether it was intended or not.”
[Photo courtesy of the Spokeman-Review]