Protesters across America this week chanted “I can’t breathe” in honor of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after being placed in an apparent chokehold by a New York City Police Department officer this past July. The phrase also happened to be a line spoken by a black actor in a Wal-Mart television commercial, which has now been removed following criticism that it reminded viewers of Garner’s death.
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The 30-second spot, which advertises Wal-Mart Family Mobile, ends with an African-American father and daughter sitting on a couch in their home. The father surprises the young girl with her own unlimited-data phone, which prompts her to embrace the man tightly and excitedly. When she wraps her arms around his neck to take a “selfie,” the father mouths the words, “I can’t breathe,” and makes a gagging noise. Wal-Mart, the largest retail chain in the world, began airing the commercial during the summer, ahead of the back-to-school season, said Deisha Galberth Barnett, a Wal-Mart spokesperson.
Earlier this week, a grand jury in New York decided not to indict the NYPD officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who placed Garner in an apparent chokehold after approaching him on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on a street corner. The scene was captured on video, which has since been widely played. As a result of the decision, thousands took to the streets of New York City, as well as Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., to protest Garner’s death and those of other unarmed black men who have recently died in encounters with the police. On both Wednesday and Thursday nights, large crowds gathered in the New York City boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and chanted messages, including, “I can’t breathe.”
A few viewers requested through social media that Wal-Mart remove the commercial, Galberth Barnett told msnbc. The retailer replied directly to those individuals on Twitter.
“We see how the ad could be viewed differently today,” she said.
“As soon as we saw a handful of comments and feedback from folks in social media, and literally a handful, we took a look at the ad and decided that we certainly could see people viewing it differently today than when it first aired,” she added.
The spot was aired in certain local markets and removed by Thursday. But Galberth Barnett couldn’t confirm the exact locations. When released, she said, the new version of the ad likely will return to the same markets, though the company is still working through the logistical details.
The decision in the Garner case was the latest in a long string of tragedies in other U.S. cities. Last week, a St. Louis grand jury didn’t indict police officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder determined there is reasonable cause to believe the Cleveland police engage in a pattern and practice of using excessive force. Almost two weeks ago, Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann apparently shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was holding a toy “airsoft” gun outside of a recreation center.
Also in New York, a novice officer fatally shot a 28-year-old man in a Brooklyn stairwell earlier this month in what authorities said appeared to be an accidental discharge. Two other NYPD officers are under criminal investigation after being caught on surveillance video pistol-whipping a teenage marijuana suspect in August.