SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Some officials in the Indiana city of South Bend have called on a police officer to stop selling T-shirts that make light of the “I can’t breathe” refrain used in recent protests of the police killing of a New York City man.
Mishawaka police officer Jason Barthel this week began selling T-shirts with the message “Breathe easy, don’t break the law” at a South Bend store he owns in response to a weekend protest at the University of Notre Dame.
Members of Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team wore T-shirts before Saturday’s game against Michigan emblazoned with the message “I can’t breathe.” Those were the last words of Eric Garner, a black man who died in July in New York City after a white police officer placed him in a chokehold while trying to arrest Garner for allegedly illegally selling single cigarettes.
A grand jury recently decided not to indict that officer in Garner’s death, sparking protests.
South Bend City Council members Oliver Davis, Henry Davis Jr. and Valerie Schey on Tuesday called on Barthel to stop selling his “Breathe Easy” shirts.
“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,” they said in a statement.
The store has defended its T-shirts in a posting on its Facebook page.
“For those upset, please understand when we use the slogan ‘Breathe Easy’ we are referring to knowing the police are there for you!” a statement posted Monday said.
The city of South Bend is a frequent customer of Barthel’s store, South Bend Uniform, records show, with more than $64,700 in receipts since January 2013, the South Bend Tribune reported.
The Mishawaka Police Department referred calls seeking comment from Barthel to South Bend Uniform. The store’s voicemail was full today, and a message seeking comment couldn’t be left.
Geoffrey D. Spiess, attorney for the city of Mishawaka, said the city has no reason to take action on the issue because Barthel’s work with South Bend Uniform is done as a private citizen in his off-duty hours.