Republican Councilman Says “I Can’t Breathe” Before Removing Mask To Crowd’s Cheers

An Arizona Republican is under fire for what people are calling an inappropriate gesture during a speech at an anti-mask protest. Scottsdale councilmember Guy Phillips organized the “Unmasking Us” protest in response to a citywide mandate requiring people to wear masks in public spaces, then got up on stage in a mask, said “I can’t breathe” into the microphone twice, and removed the mask to cheers from the crowd.

“I can’t breathe,” of course, are the final words of multiple Black men and other individuals who have been killed by police officers in the U.S. due to being put in chokeholds, or, in the case of George Floyd, from asphyxia due to a full-grown man kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Meanwhile, wearing a mask in order to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus only makes it slightly harder to breathe, if at all, and nobody has died from wearing one.

Phillips’ stunt has gained him widespread condemnation, including from the mayor of Scottsdale and the governor of Arizona.

“Councilman Phillips’ comments at his anti-mask protest rally today at City Hall do not represent the values of our Scottsdale community,” said Mayor Jim Lane. “I share the profound disappointment expressed by many residents at the words Mr. Phillips chose.”

Governor Doug Ducey was a bit more frank in his comments about Phillips.

“Just flat out wrong,” he tweeted. “Despicable doesn’t go far enough. The final words of George Floyd should NEVER be invoked like this. Anyone who mocks the murder of a fellow human has no place in public office. Period.”

Phillips claims he did not intend to evoke any individual’s last words when he said “I can’t breathe” in his apology, insisting that the mask really was “hot and stuffy.”

“I am sorry about a comment I made today that was the same comment Mr. Floyd had made,” said Phillips. “He didn’t deserve what happened to him and I by no means was trying to make light of it by saying I can’t breathe in a mask. Please accept my sincerest apology and that goes out to anyone who became offended.”

The problem is not so much that people “became offended,” of course, but that it’s shockingly disrespectful to the dead and to all living Black people and other victims of police brutality while also contributing to the spread of a deadly disease.

The U.S. is currently seeing surges in COVID-19 cases across the country, including in Arizona.

Graph showing the progression of COVID-19 cases in multiple countries

Some residents of Scottsdale have called for Phillips to resign, but this seems unlikely after he failed to resign even after wrongly claiming that COVID stands for “Chinese Originated Viral Infectious Disease,” which was both racist and incorrect.