The Politics of Breathing Black

by b socha

This image of LeBron James wearing an “I can’t breathe” tee shirt at a Cav’s warmup cropped up in my inbox this afternoon:

Image courtesy of sports.nationalpost.com

The message on the shirt refers to Eric Garner’s last words before he died from neck-compression resulting from police force in Staten Island this summer. A quick search revealed that many protesters and protest-supporters are wearing something similar. Many of the most visible wearers are black male professional athletes including Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, and Johnson Bademosi. This particular photo seems to be on trend because of President Obama’s endorsement in People Magazine of athletes like James taking a stance on current political issues. While Obama said that he felt LeBron “did the right thing” in wearing the shirt publicly, the President said he hoped to see more engagement from athletes on a broader scope of issues. Obama did not endorse the larger wave of protests and organization surrounding the police’s killing of unarmed citizens Eric Garner and Michael Brown, he only reaffirmed the influential role that such athletes can play in drawing attention to contemporary issues.

In the midst of my insta-research on the Garner tee shirts, two things came up that disturbed me, even though they definitely don’t shock me.

The first thing I saw was that Catherine Crump, an Illinois woman, is attempting to trademark the phrase. The Washington Post reported that Crump’s application for trademark listed “commercial purposes.” Crump has no relationship with Garner, who died in July of 2014, and has not contacted the family in New York. So, take a look at these image of Bademosi’s DIY shirt and the numerous optics of protestors carrying these words on signs and their bodies again:

Imagine courtesy of pix11.com

image courtesy of the burningplatform.com


If the trademark application is granted, a phrase that has transformed into a rally-call against police brutality will become entangled at the nexus of public speech and private license. Not just tee shirts produced by Crump but the very inscription of resistance in speech and letters against police violence will become recoded as the private property of an individual. I haven’t done enough research in the matter yet but I can only hope that the application is denied or withdrawn.

Without going too far afield in what I hope will be a brief post, I was struck by how well Garner’s death and Crump’s trademark application typify a tendency in American political life to publicize risk and privatize gain. How dissimilar are Crump’s actions and the generations of marketing and co-optation that surround the legacy of civil rights leaders and the protest movements of the 60’s more generally? (Seriously: I once saw a commercial for an investment planning service supplicate to the risk-taking, world-shaping hippie-generation, splicing images of color-saturated pastoral images (think: Woodstock) with a portfolio.] Crump may be a stark example, but it doesn’t strike me that it’s an outlier in our cultural lexicon.

But that’s just sort of small change–or maybe it’s the Beebus to the Butthead of what I saw next. Apparently there’s a cop from Indiana named Jason Barthel who’s selling these clever shirts:

Officer Jason Barthel’s witty response to the “I can’t breathe” tee shirt. Image courtesy of chicagoist.com

Barthel’s Facebook shop apparently clarified the slogan on the shirt by reiterating that “breathing easy” was meant to engender trust in police officers. Side-stepping the fact that most of us who can read weren’t born yesterday, I started to ponder Barthel’s message. What was it that Eric Garner shouldn’t have been doing when Officer Daniel Panteleo suspected him of selling loose cigarettes? What should unarmed persons–even if suspected of a crime–do to remind police that in between an officer’s suspicion and a citizen’s violent death that there are these things called the fourth and fifth amendments? What is it exactly that LeBron and Johnson and Kobe should be doing so they can prove they’re not breaking the law? And then I got it: they should stop being Black males. The horizon between being Black and male and being criminal has become so indeterminate that we can neither fully disentangle nor simply reduce one category to the other.

Ours is one hell of a schizophrenic society: one-half colorblind, one half racialized. Just two of the most prominent examples of unarmed victims of police violence demonstrate that American male Blackness is inseparable from what is seen as criminal in our society. And criminality, while (empirically) including different categories of political other–being poor, ghettoized (in inner cities or Appalachian ruins), under-educated, and under-employed, is marked by nothing in our discourse more so than color.

If indeed the right to a fair trial, or the right to be nonviolently arrested and chard at the very least, are rights under attack, I suggest we abandon quaint notions of progressive reform, piecemeal integration, and generational uplift and exchange them for ideas that can help us make sense of where we actually are, not where the linear story of “postracial” America suggests we live.

I had this idea once that the most failed aspect of the modern American state was the propensity to link the inclusion of Black citizens to polity by way of the (very low) floor of the courtroom and the institutions of the criminal justice system. Liberals in the early decades of the 20th century may have needed to rally behind due process as the most robust and most likely path to ending white mob violence and law-enforcement lynchings, it was “a different world.”

But surely the strong relationship between the criminal law and Black citizenship needs to be weakened, overturned, and surpassed not defended as “progress”… right?

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