Assignment on 'I Can't Breathe' Cartoon Causes Controversy in Texas School

Controversy erupted in Texas when a school assignment included a political cartoon that depicts white men throughout history assaulting a Black man as he struggles to say the phrase "I can't breathe."

The National Coalition Against Censorship and ten other groups including the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal aid for cartoonists and publishers, signed a letter in defense of the cartoon on Wednesday, after the Wylie Independent School District removed the controversial cartoon from an eighth grade classroom assignment.

Police groups and Texas Governor Greg Abbott had expressed outrage over the cartoon, which includes depictions of a Ku Klux Klan member and two police officers. Abbott called for the firing of a teacher who had taught the assignment, which was aimed at discussing freedom of speech and the role of protests in American society. Other political cartoons, including one featuring anti-mask protesters, were also used in the assignment.

"A teacher in a Texas public school comparing police officers to the KKK is beyond unacceptable," Abbott commented last week while retweeting an image of the cartoon shared by a police group. "It's the opposite of what must be taught. The teacher should be fired. I'm asking the Texas Education Agency to investigate and take action."

A teacher in a Texas public school comparing police officers to the KKK is beyond unacceptable.

It’s the opposite of what must be taught.

The teacher should be fired.

I’m asking the Texas Education Agency to investigate and take action.

— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) August 23, 2020

Although Abbott called for a single unnamed teacher to be fired, a report from WFAA indicates that "team of teachers" had decided to include the cartoon. The school district apologized for the cartoon while announcing it had been removed from the assignment, saying they were "sorry for any hurt that may have been caused through a social studies lesson that included political cartoons that reflected negatively on law enforcement."

BLM Protester
A Black Lives Matter protester holds a sign that reads "I Can't Breathe" during a demonstration in Austin, Texas on July 26, 2020. Sergio Flores/Getty

The five-panel cartoon, drawn by David Fitzsimmons and syndicated nationally by Cagle Cartoons, includes an image of a Black man on the ground saying "I can't breathe" while being restrained by a white man during different periods in history. The first panel depicts the man as a slave with a slave trader's knee on his neck, while an apparent slave owner is pictured doing the same thing in the second panel.

The third panel features a hooded member of the KKK holding the man's neck in a noose. The last two panels show police officers with their knees on the man's neck, with the first featuring a "White Only" segregation sign in the background and the last appearing to depict former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on the neck of George Floyd.

"I feel for the poor, well-intentioned junior high school educators in Wylie who shared my cartoon in the classroom and made the dreadful mistake of asking students to interpret the meaning of the cartoon in a lesson about the freedom of expression, democracy and the Bill of Rights," Fitzsimmons wrote in an opinion article on the controversy published by The Arizona Daily Star on Wednesday.

"It didn't take long for people to call for firing the teacher and right-wing media to mischaracterize my cartoon," Fitzsimmons added. "Persecuting, smearing and scapegoating public school teachers for teaching truth, civic dialogue, historical context and critical thought is beyond unacceptable. It's un-American."