One small business is booming as the debate rages over police shootings.
With a T-shirt, police officer Jason Barthel ignited a national controversy. Ten days before Christmas, the owner of South Bend Uniform Co. debuted T-shirts emblazoned with this controversial message: “Breathe Easy, Don’t Break the Law.”
Barthel twisted the rallying cry of a national protest sweeping the country. Since early December, numerous NBA and NCAA basketball teams have sported “I Can’t Breathe” warm-up jerseys commemorating the last words of Eric Garner and protesting his untimely death.
Frustrated that this apparel “made it seem as if there were a lot of people thumbing their nose at the police,” Barthel told The Daily Signal that he fashioned his own T-shirts as “a retort to the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ movement.”
“Up until that point, nobody from our side of the world—the police world—had really said anything on our behalf,” Barthel said.
Barthel, a 13-year veteran of the Mishawaka Police Department, wants to fill that void.
“From the perspective of a policeman,” the clothing communicates that “we’re here for you, and we won’t have any problems with you if you’re not breaking the law.
“Don’t do the wrong thing and you won’t have a bad run in-with the police.”
Barthel argues that any abuse of police power is infrequent and insists that his products were always meant to unite, never to antagonize. He admits there are incidents where police could “handle things a little better” but rejects what he considers an emerging anti-police sentiment.
“My intention was not to cause divisiveness or cause any type of divide, but it was to bring people together by knowing that the police are there for you.”
Some members of the community aren’t convinced.
In an open letter, a coalition of community leaders condemned a product they believe “damages the goal of unity and further divides our community.”
Joined by the local president of the NAACP, Rev. Terrell Jackson, three members of the South Bend City Council urged Barthel to “discontinue sales.”
This is more than an idle threat considering that, according to a report by the Star Tribune, public records show that the city of South Bend made purchases of more than $64,700 from Barthel’s company in 2013 alone.
Barthel isn’t worried about any negative business ramifications, though. He believes the media have overstated the controversy, pointing to a lengthy conversation he had with Jackson, one of his most vocal critics.
“At the end of that meeting, I got a hug from Mr. Jackson,” Barthel said. “The president of the NAACP in this area told me he understood where the shirt was coming from … the message behind it, and now that he would love to have a shirt and let people know what the message was actually about.”
Jackson confirmed the meeting, but told The Daily Signal he still opposes the T-shirt’s sale.
Now a full line of merchandise, the trademarked “Breathe Easy” apparel includes sweatshirts, hoodies and ball caps. Barthel boasts of “tens of thousands of orders” placed both throughout the country and internationally.
When asked about the proceeds, Barthel admitted, “There is a degree of profitability in producing this T-shirt. I am an entrepreneur and I am a businessman.” He notes that South Bend Uniform Co. has already donated $5,000 to the Tom and Bryan Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports public safety. He hopes to do more.
“The more successful these T-shirts become the more philanthropic I can and will become.”