Three members of the South Bend, Indiana Common Council have asked a local business owner to stop selling T-shirts bearing a message that they believe makes light of the death of Eric Garner, the New York man who died after being placed in a chokehold by a city police officer.
His response: No.
The Associated Press reports Mishawaka Police officer Jason Barthel began selling the shirts from his store, South Bend Uniform, last week in response to a protest in which the nearby University of Notre Dame women’s basketball team donned shirts with the slogan, “I can’t breathe.”
The slogan refers to the last words of Garner, an asthmatic black man, who is said to have died because of the chokehold. Police originally approached Garner because he was suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes on a street corner. A grand jury later declined to indict the white officer who administered the chokehold, sparking protests across the nation.
Barthel’s shirts read, “Breathe easy, don’t break the law,” and he is reportedly moving quite a few of them through his store which sells safety equipment and uniform supplies to area police and fire departments.
The city of South Bend is a customer, according to the South Bend Tribune, having purchased more than $64,000 in supplies since January 2013.
The Common Council members, Oliver Davis, Henry Davis Jr. and Valerie Schey, think the shirts send the wrong message.
“Unfortunately, the divisive message … that is being currently promoted through the sale of T-shirts bearing this message damages the goal of unity and further divides our community,” the trio wrote in a news release sent out Tuesday.
“We ask that local vendors that are promoting this message discontinue sales of these T-shirts,” the release said.
But Barthel says the message isn’t divisive at all. He told WSBT News his shirts simply portray the perspective of police officers.
“We are not here to do anything negative to the public. 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,” he said.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg declined to take sides but also issued a statement Tuesday.
“As residents exercise their free speech rights, it is important to be respectful of others’ concerns,” the statement said. “The sensitive issues now being discussed across America deserve to be taken seriously, and we as a community have a lot of work to do in addressing them here at home. We cannot rest until all residents and all public safety officers view each other in an authentic spirit of mutual trust and respect.”