Editor’s note: This article references anti-Black violence and police brutality.
As of 12:51 p.m. on Monday, the iconic Arts Quad Ezra Cornell statue donned red spray paint at its base, reading “I can’t breathe.” By 2:10 p.m., the words had been covered.
The phrase “I can’t breathe,” references years of police brutality incidents — most recently, the pleas of George Floyd, who died on May 25 after now-fired police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for over eight minutes.
“We did take a report on the graffiti and will be conducting an investigation,” wrote Cornell University Police Chief Dave Honan in a statement to The Sun. Honan did not elaborate on the nature of the graffiti.
A University spokesperson later clarified that facilities staff “covered the graffiti in anticipation of cleanup,” and that investigations of vandalism are standard practice.
The covering also obscures the statue’s inscription of Cornell’s name.
“It feels like Cornell is trying to silence people who are trying to speak out against this,” wrote Moriah Adeghe ’21 in an email to The Sun. “Martha sends an email about how she doesn’t support hate and yet quickly boards up a sign … refusing to support police brutality. Why is it that the university supports speaking out against hate only in the way that they want?”
“I can’t breathe,” first became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, spurred by Eric Garner’s death and other similar fatal encounters of black Americans with police officers which mirrored Floyd’s death.
Garner pleaded the same words 11 times while police officer Daniel Pantaleo placed his arm across Garner’s neck, pulling him to the ground as other officers handcuffed him.
Garner’s death — declared a homicide by the medical examiner due to the chokehold and compression of his chest from lying prone — was also captured on video and set off protests and calls to fire and charge Pantaleo and the involved officers. After five years and multiple court battles, Pantaleo was fired from the New York Police Department in August 2019.
The phrase has resurfaced during the past few days of fiery protests, ignited by Floyd’s death.
Across the country, thousands of protesters in over 50 cities took to the streets, with police vehicles vandalized, buildings set on fire and stores stolen from.
Police officers used pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets in many cities in response to mounting conflict. As of Monday evening, the National Guard had been deployed in more than two dozen states. And at least six people have been killed in clashes with police during violence connected to the protests.
This story has been updated.