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Protest Song Of The Week: ‘I Can’t Breathe’ by The Garner Family

Eric Garner was killed by New York police on July 17, 2014. Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold. He cried out, “I can’t breathe!” The officers involved in apprehending him showed no mercy, and his death was captured on video.

A grand jury on Staten Island refused to indict Pantaleo for his role in killing Garner.

The killing of Eric Garner sparked a wide movement against police brutality in the United States. Because there was video, the officers could not lie about what they had done to Garner and how they had targeted him again for selling untaxed cigarettes to help his family survive. Activists took up Garner’s words, “I Can’t Breathe,” as a slogan to mobilize around.

But activists and community members also organized around words Garner spoke in frustration before he was killed. He said, “This stops today,” because he had been harassed by police numerous times. The phrase allowed the movement to not only focus on the brutality against Garner but to inspire people to imagine a what a world where black lives mattered would be like.

To mark the two-year anniversary of Garner’s death, his sister, Ellisha Flagg and Steven Flagg, released a song called, “I Can’t Breathe.” It was produced to show solidarity with everyone throughout the country, who know what black people in the United States deal with on a daily basis must stop today.

Ellisha sings the hook, part of which goes, “I can hear my brother crying/I can’t breathe/Now I’m in this struggle/And I can’t leave.” She adds everyone knows the solution, but “they blame you and me.” The movement will stop until black people are free.

The first verse sung by Ellisha admits Garner was a flawed man, however, like every person, he did not deserve to die at the hands of police.

In the second verse, Ellisha urges others to stay by her side when her “face hits the wall.”

Steven raps, “If I lose my car/I can get another one/Lose my house/I can get another one/Lose my mind/I create another one/They took my brother/And I can never get another one.”

His brother rails against a system. “No matter how much money I receive, I can hear my brother crying, I can’t breathe.”

The style is more classic R&B. Ellisha’s humming in the opening, and the choir at the end gives the protest song a spiritual element.

The song is not the first track to be released by The Garner Family. Both put out a song in 2015 called, “This Ends Today,” inspired by Eric Garner’s last words.

Garner’s family told Billboard, “The song is dedicated to the struggle everyone is going through.”

After a week where police killed Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile in Minneapolis, and Delrawn Small in New York, the struggle is once again brought into the open, with thousands of people throughout the country challenging citizens and the political class to push for a world where black people can live with dignity, and police cannot extinguish black lives and get away with it.

Listen to the song from The Garner Family at Soundcloud. It is available on iTunes for purchase and will be available on other music services on July 16. 

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."