(Newsweek) – Eric Garner’s last known words were “I can’t breathe.” He said it 11 times before he passed out on a Staten Island sidewalk while police officers arrested him for selling untaxed cigarettes. Using a cellphone, a bystander captured a white officer putting Garner, who is black, in an apparent chokehold. Garner later died at a nearby hospital, and the video went viral. When the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was not indicted, it sparked nationwide protests about racism and police brutality.
A few days after that December 12 decision not to indict, Jason Whitlock, one of the best-known sportswriters in the country, weighed in. His ESPN.com article, “Why Black Folks Can’t Breathe,” was shared 20,000 times, and it’s one of his most important columns on race. Whitlock pulled back the focus from the Garner case to police brutality and the systemic problem he has been writing about for several years: segregation by incarceration, an institutional conspiracy against black people carried out by the American justice system. “The people who opposed the civil rights movement and the end of segregation did not hold a news conference, concede defeat and pledge support for racial equality,” wrote Whitlock. “They hatched a new strategy.”
It was a passionate and personal essay. But Whitlock, who is African-American, also used his platform to pillory the rallying cry Garner’s death had spawned: “I can’t breathe.” “There is no widespread epidemic of cops shooting and/or killing unarmed black men,” he wrote. “Dumbed-down, irresponsible Twitter hashtags won’t stop segregation by incarceration. They empower it. They keep the national conversation steered away from the real problem and real solutions.”