When Janet Derr-Littman reads the phrase “I can’t breathe” she remembers George Floyd.
The words were some of the last spoken by Floyd as he was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020. The phrase turned into a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter activists across the nation.
That’s why Derr-Littman was shocked to see the words on the T-shirts of two children in a photo at a Catawba County Schools Board of Education meeting. A friend sent her a Hickory Daily Record article that was published online Tuesday afternoon about Catawba County Schools’ decision to make masks optional in the coming school year. It included the photo of two children wearing white shirts with black masks with the words “I can’t breathe” across them.
“I understood the reference to Black Lives Matter and to George Flloyd’s murder when he said, ‘I can’t breathe’ — and that has no correlation,” Derr-Littman said.
Down one side of the shirts read the words, “Why doesn’t ‘my’ life matter?”
Derr-Littman, a Black Hickory resident, was appalled.
“It’s disrespectful to the Black Lives Matter movement, and they know that that’s disrespectful,” she said.
The phrases, appropriated from the movement for racial justice, had nothing to do with masks or anti-vaccination, she said. Derr-Littman felt the use of those phrases only incites racial tension where there was none before.
“Why bring in two Black topics that have nothing to do with vaccination?” she said. “How can someone be so insensitive that you don’t understand the correlation? Or so ignorant that you think there’s not a correlation? Either way, it’s bad.”
Derr-Littman heard from friends who were also outraged by the shirts, and upset to see the image displayed online. More context was needed for the shirts, Derr-Littman said.
“It was so in your face,” she said. “I was disappointed in the newspaper for not explaining that there’s no correlation (between Black Lives Matter and anti-mask movements). … This has been offensive to so many.”