He said it again, louder: “I can’t breathe” — echoing the dying words of George Floyd that have become a rallying cry in nationwide protests against police violence.
Then Phillips ripped off the mask, rolled his eyes and feigned relief as the crowd cheered for him. “Insanity!” he said of the mask mandate.
Now, he’s facing calls to step down, as critics on both sides of the aisle have condemned his “callous” insult to Floyd’s memory and the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) called Phillips’s “I can’t breathe” comment “despicable” while Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) said “despicable doesn’t go far enough” to describe Phillips’s behavior.
“The final words of George Floyd should NEVER be invoked like this,” Ducey wrote on Twitter. “Anyone who mocks the murder of a fellow human has no place in public office. Period.”
The words “I can’t breathe” have been at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement since Eric Garner repeated them 11 times as a New York City officer held him in a chokehold before he died in 2014.
But Phillips, who did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment, insisted to the Arizona Republic that his “I can’t breathe” comment had no connection to Floyd, Garner or the protests and solely referred to his mask. He said it was “hot and stuffy” and he meant “no disrespect.”
Hours later, as outrage mounted, he issued another statement, this time apologizing to the Floyd family.
“I am sorry about a comment I made today that was the same comment Mr. Floyd had made,” he wrote, according to the Republic. “He didn’t deserve what happened to him and I by no means was trying to make light of it by saying I cant breathe in a mask. Please accept my sincerest apology and that goes out to anyone who became offended.”
Phillips’s behavior combined two of America’s most pressing matters into one combustible moment. Some Scottsdale residents used the moment to contrast the two drastically different protests that have consumed different Americans in recent weeks: one against the police killings of unarmed black men, the other against being told to wear a face mask to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Phillips and others politicians held the “Unmask Us” rally Wednesday in response to Republican Scottsdale Mayor W.J. “Jim” Lane’s order last week requiring all residents to wear masks in most public places.
Ducey announced June 17 that, rather than a statewide rule, mayors would be allowed to issue mask mandates in their cities. The state has been experiencing an alarming spike in coronavirus cases, among the worst rates in the nation and far exceeding New York in new cases. Arizona has recorded more than 16,500 cases since June 18, marking a 38 percent increase, and this week reported record-breaking numbers for hospitalizations and single-day new cases since the pandemic began.
While public health officials have worried about mass Black Lives Matter protests spreading the virus, Arizona and particularly Scottsdale have also seen persistent problems with large, massless crowds inside sweaty nightclubs and bars since the state reopened on May 15. Public health experts have linked Arizona’s rocketing covid-19 caseload to its reopening.
In his remarks Wednesday, Phillips said he would be happy to wear a mask “out of respect for my fellow citizens,” but not if the government makes him do it. He said that “these mandates are destroying people’s livelihood,” before invoking recent protests.
“You can’t open your businesses, but rioters and looters are allowed to ransack them,” he said. “You can’t go to church. You can’t go to funerals. You can’t go to your child’s birth. But it’s okay to protest in the streets. Now we all have to wear masks or we face fines or jail time?” He asked: “Are we gonna stand tall, or cave to a socialist system?”
Video footage of his “I can’t breathe” opening remarks spread quickly online. Lane, the mayor, later wrote on Twitter that he hoped Phillips “understands how wrong that was and offers a sincere apology.”
“Councilman Phillips’ comments at his anti-mask protest rally today at City Hall do not represent the values of our Scottsdale community,” Lane wrote. “I share the profound disappointment expressed by many residents at the words Mr. Phillips chose. ... to use the phrase “I can’t breathe” during this moment in time was callous and insensitive.”
McSally, sharing a video of his comments, said, “This is a serious moment in history and it’s disgusting you are mocking the dying words of a murdered man.”
McSally’s opponent in the Republican primary, Daniel McCarthy, spoke at Wednesday’s anti-mask rally in dramatic terms, describing the mask mandate as a “communist insurrection” and saying, “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees” before leading the crowd in anti-mask chants. President Trump has previously endorsed McSally.
Phillips’s apology to the Floyd family is the second time since the start of the pandemic that he has apologized for offensive comments. In March, he also made national headlines when he wrote on Facebook, “Hate to break this to all of the morons who call themselves Journalists. COVID literally stands for ‘Chinese Originated Viral Infectious Disease’ and the number 19 is due to this being the 19th virus to come out of China.”
“Covid-19” actually stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
Phillips apologized to “anyone who was offended” in a column for the Arizona Republic.
“I have been made aware of my ignorance,” he wrote then. “I hope and pray others will also take a moment and think before they post or repost any exchange of information to make sure it is not only accurate but promotes healing and goodwill.”