|Origin/etymology||Death of Eric Garner|
|Meaning||Rallying cry against police brutality|
|Context||Police brutality and lack of police accountability|
"I can't breathe" is a slogan associated with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. The phrase originates from the last words of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was killed in 2014 after being put in a chokehold by New York City Police. A number of other African-Americans, such as Javier Ambler, Manuel Ellis, Elijah McClain, and George Floyd have said the same phrase prior to dying during law-enforcement encounters. According to a 2020 report by the New York Times, the phrase has been used by over 70 people who died in police custody.
The phrase originated in July 2014 during the death of Eric Garner, who was put into a chokehold by a New York City Police Department officer. A video of Garner restrained by multiple officers showed him saying "I can't breathe" 11 times before losing consciousness and dying.
Following the December 2014 acquittal of the officer who put Garner into a chokehold, the slogan experienced a dramatic increase in popularity amid widespread protests.
The first display from athletes was when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish women's basketball team wore T-shirts emblazoned with "I can't breathe" during a December 13 game warm-up. Athletes from both the National Football League and National Basketball Association, notably LeBron James, wore clothing printed with "I can't breathe." Following criticism of James, President Barack Obama came to his defense, stating "I think LeBron did the right thing...We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness." In late December, officials from the Fort Bragg Unified School District in Mendocino, California banned athletes from wearing "I can't breathe" T-shirts before a three-day high school basketball tournament, before reversing the ban. The American Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter in support of the students.
The cast of the movie Selma wore "I can't breathe" shirts to their December premiere. Actor David Oyelowo recounts that members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences complained to movie producers and stated that in retaliation they would not vote for Selma to receive Oscars. Oyelowo states, "It's part of why that film didn't get everything that people think it should've got and it birthed #OscarsSoWhite."
Fred Shapiro, the editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, chose "I can't breathe" as the most notable quote of 2014. Shapiro expressed that it was not a slogan of only that moment, but "a phrase with real and lasting impact". Professor Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Reverend Jesse Jackson wrote in a December 2014 opinion piece that the phrase "has become a slogan for the people who have taken to social media and the streets to protest the killing of unarmed African Americans, challenging a system that fails to indict and calling for greater equality."
Linguist Ben Zimmer compared it to similar slogans such as "Hands up, don't shoot," which originated in the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, and the older "No justice, no peace." Zimmer called it "a peculiarly powerful rallying cry," and noted, "to intone the words 'I can't breathe,' surrounded by thousands of others doing the same, is an act of intense empathy and solidarity. The empathy comes from momentarily stepping into the persona of Eric Garner at that instant the life was being choked out of him." Zimmer noted that, in the variant "We can't breathe," the phrase becomes directed towards social change and more metaphorical. Phrases seen on protests signs such as "Justice can't breathe" and "Our democracy can't breathe" extend the meaning beyond the physical circumstances of Garner's death.
Joshua D. Rothman of the University of Alabama noted that fashion statements such as the "I can't breathe" T-shirts are "easily and often dismissed by opponents as a cheap gesture or a stunt." However, analyzing the fashion craze in the late 18th and early 19th century for the "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" cameos made by Josiah Wedgwood for bracelets and hair ornaments, and subsequent incorporation of the kneeling slave image into many different types of products as the most widely used symbol of the American abolitionist movement, Rothman asserted that "we ought not underestimate fashion's value and significance for building momentum and visibility for a political cause."
The phrase has been frequently invoked in protest songs and other music. Eric Garner's siblings released the song "I Can't Breathe" in 2016. The first English song by Russian band Pussy Riot was entitled "I Can't Breathe". Songwriter H.E.R. released a song by the same name in 2020. Songwriter KOLE BLACK also released a song by the name I Can't Breathe in 2020.
Supporters of the New York City Police Department marched on December 19, 2014 in black hoodies emblazoned with "I can breathe, thanks to the NYPD" and shouted "Don't resist arrest!" at counter-protesters. Separately, shirts produced and sold online by Jason Barthel, a police officer in Mishawaka, Indiana, that stated, "Breathe Easy: Don't break the law" drew criticism. Barthel stated, "When you break the law, unfortunately there's going to be consequences, and some of them aren't going to be pretty." Members of the city council of South Bend, Indiana asked then-mayor and future-U.S. presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for cooperation in banning the city from future contracts with Barthel's uniform business. Buttigieg's political opponent Henry Davis Jr. described the response: "He refused to touch it. And when he touched it, he agreed with both sides."
Christopher Lowe died while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser in Fort Worth, Texas on July 26, 2018. When Lowe told officers he was dying and couldn't breathe, officers told him "Don't pull that shit," berated him, threatened to pepper spray him, and conspired not to tell medical staff about his medical condition, according to disciplinary letters issued against the officers. Officers Christopher Golden, Taylor Stephens, Daniel Pritzker, Hans Fellhauer and Mitchell Miller were fired; officers Scott Smith and Andrew Scharf were suspended without pay. Six officers have appealed; Smith waived his right to appeal and accepted the suspension in lieu of termination.
In March 2019, Javier Ambler II died while being arrested in Austin, Texas. Ambler was arrested and tased after fleeing from deputies who sought to stop him for a traffic violation and leading them on a 22-minute car chase which ended in crash. His final words were "I can't breathe." Ambler's death was ruled a homicide, caused by congestive heart failure and hypertensive cardiovascular disease in combination with forcible restraint.
Derrick Scott died in Oklahoma City in May 2019 after being restrained by officers for about 13 minutes. Police were responding to a call about someone brandishing a gun. Scott fled when confronted by police and a gun was removed by an officer during the arrest. One officer put her knee between Scott's shoulder blades and a second straddled Scott's back. When Scott told officers multiple times that he couldn't breathe, officer Jarred Tipton responded, "I don't care," and another said, "You can breathe just fine." Scott died at the hospital an hour later due to a collapsed lung, according to an autopsy that found physical restraint, recent methamphetamine use, asthma, bullous emphysema and atherosclerotic heart disease contributed to Scott's death. Following an investigation that cleared the officers of wrongdoing, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater told the press, "I mean, he’s just a perfect candidate to die when you’ve got meth in your system and those kinds of physical ailments and then you fight with police. [The officers] didn’t do anything wrong at all."
Byron Williams died in police custody in Las Vegas on September 5, 2019 saying, "I can't breathe." Williams had been flagged down by Las Vegas Metro Police officers after they spotted him riding his bike without a safety light just before sunrise at 5:48am. He fled officers and abandoned his bike and then scaled two walls before being arrested 1 minute and 40 seconds after the start of the encounter. According to police, he resisted by refusing to give up one his arms and that he had drugs on him which he tried to conceal. He was arrested and according to the police video Williams was held down while on his stomach, he said "I can't breathe" at least 17 times before he eventually lost consciousness. At the end of the pursuit, five officers had arrived at the scene to assist in the arrest. Paramedics arrived 14 minutes after Williams lost consciousness and he was later declared dead at the hospital. Las Vegas police controlled the narrative by releasing only some of the bodycam video to the public. None of the officers involved have been charged. The incident is one of several police custody deaths that re-emerged following the death of George Floyd.
Manuel Ellis died on March 3, 2020 during an arrest by police officers in Tacoma, Washington. Ellis pleaded "I can't breathe" with officers before dying in the minutes after his arrest. A witness contradicted earlier police accounts of his arrest and death. Video showed police punching Ellis during the arrest. The Pierce County medical examiner ruled that Ellis' death was a homicide, resulting from hypoxia due to physical restraint. The medical examiner said other factors contributed to Ellis's death, including methamphetamine intoxication, heart disease and a mask officers had placed over his mouth meant to stop spitting or biting.
On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin, was accused of killing George Floyd, by kneeling on the back of his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Spectator video of the incident showed Floyd saying "I can't breathe" multiple times. Despite his pleas, as well as a bystander exclaiming that the officer was preventing Floyd from breathing, Chauvin continued the restraint for 2 minutes and 53 seconds after Floyd became unresponsive, while three other officers watched. All four officers were subsequently dismissed from the police force, with Chauvin being charged with second-degree murder, and the three others with aiding and abetting murder.
"I can't breathe" became rallying cry for the subsequent nationwide protests. Protestors have adopted it as a chant. In his first public speech on George Floyd's death and protests on June 2, presidential candidate Joe Biden began with, "I can't breathe. I can't breathe. George Floyd's last words. But they didn't die with him. They're still being heard. They're echoing across this nation." That same day, ViacomCBS-owned networks paused their programming to show a black screen for 8 minutes and 46 seconds with the words "I can't breathe" displayed.
On June 24, Scottsdale, Arizona City Councilman Guy Phillips said, "I can't breathe," as he took off his mask at a rally protesting the mandatory mask wearing announced by Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane during the COVID-19 pandemic in Arizona. He was condemned by local and state officials. Arizona Sen. Martha McSally stated, "Despicable. This is a serious moment in history and it's disgusting you are mocking the dying words of a murdered man." and Gov. Doug Ducey said, "Just flat out wrong. Despicable doesn't go far enough. The final words of George Floyd should never be invoked like this. Anyone who mocks the murder of a fellow human has no place in public office. Period." Phillips later issued an apology.
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