Annie Pennington started waiting tables as a teenager, and remembers serving Delbert Belton, a friend of her father’s.
Belton, a World War II veteran, was beaten to death in August 2013. One black teenager has pleaded guilty. Another will be tried in March.
Belton also was a regular customer at the Hillside Inn Restaurant, Pennington’s family-run diner on Nevada Street. So when Kenan Adams-Kinard pleaded guilty to murder, Pennington thought nothing of changing the sign outside her restaurant to read: “Shorty can’t breathe either.”
It’s wordplay that evokes the rallying cry of activists across the country after a Staten Island jury declined to indict a white police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
Garner, an unarmed black man, had been selling loose cigarettes when police confronted him. His last words were “I can’t breathe.”
Pennington said she saw the way communities rallied around Garner’s death and thought Belton deserved the same kind of support.
“We did it in honor of Shorty because he’s a selfless, helpless old man, and if we don’t take care of our grandpas, no one will,” she said.
The sign was not intended to be a commentary about race or protests against police brutality and use of force, she said. It’s about a community of people, many retired, some veterans, who come into her diner to drink coffee and eat breakfast and are tired of worrying about crime in their neighborhood.
“It’s nothing racial,” she said.
The sign expresses sentiment the diner’s regulars are in agreement with, said Rebecca Franklin, a retired teacher who sat sipping a cup of coffee at a table near the counter. She saw the sign as a comment that Belton’s killers deserve harsh punishment.
“The plea bargain was not looked on favorably by the customers that come in here,” she said, referring to Adams-Kinard’s plea bargain calling for a 20-year prison term.
Regardless of the intent behind the sign, newly elected NAACP President Rachel Dolezal said it brings to mind the national I Can’t Breathe movement.
“Even if the intention is not to be associated with that, using the same words implies an association,” she said, adding that it would be easy to make a point about Belton’s death without using a similar slogan. “People will connect it to that issue.”
Dolezal learned about the sign when a Spokesman-Review reporter called her seeking a comment. She said she drove to the diner Thursday afternoon to speak with Pennington in hopes of explaining how Spokane’s black population was likely to see the sign.
“It’s just really sad, because it seems like it’s potentially a confusion of the intention behind the I Can’t Breathe movement,” she said. That movement, she said, is about a pattern of unarmed black people being killed by police, and a longer history of violence against black people across the country where perpetrators often are not punished.
Dolezal said the conversation with Pennington didn’t play out as she’d hoped. After Dolezal expressed her concerns, she said Pennington “just got really defensive and basically demanded that I leave.”
Pennington declined to tell The Spokesman-Review about the encounter. But Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan said she called him and told him two people had stopped by her restaurant to say the sign was racist. Dolezal said she did not tell Pennington that the sign was racist.
He posted about the issue on his Facebook page, urging people to “protect this Spokane business from the PC police and any race-baiters who may come forward.”
“I’d stand next to her – I stand with her, period,” he told The Spokesman-Review. He said he understood the sign was subject to individual opinion, but didn’t believe it made light of protests over Eric Garner’s death or police brutality.
“I think the accusations are unfounded,” he said. “She’s got every right to express her free speech.”
Dolezal said despite Pennington’s reluctance to discuss the sign, she hoped it could serve as a catalyst for community discussion.
“It’s a public statement,” she said. “The dialogue is going to happen, whether it was intended or not.”
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