“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
Scottsdale Councilman Guy Phillips’ spoke those words as he removed his mask at his protest against the city’s mask mandate last week.
The comments drew swift condemnation from many locals – and others across the country – with some calling for Phillips to resign from office and drop out of the ongoing council election.
The anger stems from allegations that Phillips mocked the last words spoken by George Floyd, a Black man whose death sparked nationwide protests against police brutality.
In videos recorded at the time, Floyd can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” as a Minneapolis police knelt on his neck.
Those words have been a rallying cry at the protests, including the 1,000-person one that took place in downtown Scottsdale.
Phillips’ stunt had the appearance of an orchestrated bit. He was not wearing a mask earlier in the protest, put the mask on moments before taking the microphone and then took it off seconds later.
Armonee Jackson, who organized the earlier police brutality protest in Scottsdale, said Phillips’ words were a clear allusion to Floyd – though Phillips has denied that allegation.
“I thought that it was very insensitive to use that language,” Jackson said. “That just goes to show, one, how he feels about the black community; two, how he feels about the black lives matter movement; and, three, where he stands as far as things that are happening to the black community in regards to police brutality.”
Local officials, including Mayor Jim Lane, criticized Phillips.
Lane said the comments “do not represent the values of our Scottsdale community.”
“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,” Lane wrote in a statement.
Councilwoman Suzanne Klapp said Phillips should “look inward and his conscience will dictate that he resign from the council.”
“I am appalled by Councilman Guy Phillips’ use of the term “I can’t breathe” to illustrate his disdain for wearing a mask as ordered by the city recently,” Klapp said. “He knows well the protesting occurring here and across the country and the use of the “I can’t breathe” term by protestors to condemn the strangulation killing by police of George Floyd.”
Councilmember Virginia Korte said she “gasped” when he used the phrase.
“Phillips use of those three words is irresponsible, insensitive, disrespectful, reprehensible and dangerous,” Korte said. “Phillips does not represent me nor what I believe are the values and principles of our city.”
Phillips later apologized and stated he did not intend to make light of Floyd’s death.
“To the Family of George Floyd – I am sorry about a comment I made today that was the same comment Mr. Floyd had made,” Phillips said in an email to the Progress. “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,” Phillips said.
The comments also drew condemnation from Governor Doug Ducey and Senator Martha McSally, who both called the comments “despicable” on their official social media accounts.
“Just flat out wrong. Despicable doesn’t go far enough,” Ducey wrote. “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.”
The controversy could have implications for Phillips, who is seeking a third term.
A number of his fellow candidates criticized his comments, including John Little, Tammy Caputi and Kevin Maxwell.
Even one-time allies running for office spoke out against Phillips, including Tom Durham and Betty Janik.
Janik called the words “inexcusable” and criticized the protest against the mask mandate itself as “an offense to my very being.”
Emily Austin, a local activist and former vocal Phillips supporter, has pulled her support – but for different reasons.
Austin said she believed Phillips’ apology and that he did not intend to mock Floyd, but said she was disheartened by the partisan nature of the rally, stating the non-partisan City Council race is not a place to play party politics.
“He’s too partisan now to be on the City Council,” Austin said “It’s supposed to be the safe space for people to just focus on issues like scooters, buildings heights and density and traffic.”
The comments could hurt the city’s reputation nationally and with communities of color as Phillips’ words went viral on social media and ended up in national outlets like the Washington Post and Good Morning America by the next day.
“To have our community represented in this manner, on a national platform, is a disgrace and does long-term damage to Scottsdale’s reputation,” Korte said.
Jackson said Phillips’ words “just solidified exactly how we felt as a Black community as a whole; you don’t feel welcomed and that just solidifies that.”
Phillips’ early comment largely overshadowed the protest he organized against Mayor Lane’s June 18 emergency proclamation that requires masks be worn in most public places in Scottsdale.
Around 200 people gathered at Scottsdale City Hall on June 24 to join the protest, which featured a number of speakers, including Scottsdale State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, former Graham County Sheriff Richard Mack, U.S. Senate candidate Daniel McCarthy and Dr. Peter Steinmetz.
Protestors carried signs decrying Scottsdale’s mandate with messages like “Free people choose,” “My choice, not yours,” and “Land of the free, home of the brave.”
The stated goal of the event was not to discourage mask usage, according to a Facebook post, but to show it should be a “personal choice.”
But few people in the crowd made the personal choice to wear a mask and many even yelled “take the mask off” when Phillips first took the stage.
At the event, Phillips said he was willing to wear a mask but said it was not the government’s place to mandate one.
“I’d happily wear a mask out of respect for my fellow citizens,” Phillips said. “But when government threatens me with a fine or possible arrest if I don’t conform, I protest.”
Scottsdale Police did not issue any citations during the protest although hundreds of people gathered without masks in violation of the mandate.
“Our practice throughout the COVID-19 crisis has been to encourage compliance through education,” Officer Kevin Watts said. “As a department we will continue to encourage all members of the community to follow CDC and Arizona Department of Health Services recommendations as well as city and state orders.”
He added that “a safe environment for those exercising their rights will be our main priority, not directed enforcement.”
Ugenti-Rita argued that residents were “cut out of the process” and that mandates should have been discussed in public meetings but were instead issued mostly unilaterally.
Scottsdale’s mandate was issued by Lane without a council meeting.
“The outcome may not be what you like and may be what other people like, but you didn’t have an opportunity to express yourself,” Ugenti-Rita said. “Was this decision made in the legislature in committee…Did they post a meeting requirement and invite the public? No, they did not.”
Lane was one of the first mayors in the Valley to take advantage of Ducey’s June 17 announcement that he was giving cities and counties the power to require people to wear masks in public.
But it was criticized by Phillips, who said, “We don’t need the government to tell us COVID is real. We know it is. Most people are okay. Some get real sick. Sadly, some died, but the government giving out tickets isn’t going to help, education is.”
“I say education, not subjugation,” Phillips said.
Many of the other candidates running for office support Lane’s mandate, though.
Council candidates Caputi, Durham, Janik, Little, Maxwell and Bill Crawford told the Progress they support the mask mandate.
Mayoral candidates Klapp, Korte and David Ortega told the Progress they supported the mask rule.
Former Councilwoman Lisa Borowsky said she did not support the mandate, stating Scottsdale citizens were smart enough to follow health guidelines and that “criminalizing non-compliance demonstrates an unfortunate lack of trust in our citizens.”
Bob Littlefield, another mayoral candidate, said he had an alternate mask proposal in the works, but did not provide it to the Progress as of press time.
Much of the hour-long protest focused on the alleged illegality of the mask mandates, with speakers alleging they violated various Constitutional rights, including those in the 1st, 9th and 14th Amendments.
Phillips said he believed the mask mandate violated the First Amendment right to free expression.
Legal experts have largely disagreed, though, arguing mask mandates are legal.
“Under the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment and U.S. Supreme Court decisions over nearly 200 years, state governments have the primary authority to control the spread of dangerous diseases within their jurisdictions,” according to the American Bar Association.
“The 10th Amendment, which gives states all powers not specifically given to the federal government, allows them the authority to take public health emergency actions, such as setting quarantines and business restrictions.”
Phillips did not respond to a request for comment on whether he thinks masks are a viable option to slow virus spread or if he thinks protesting the mandate is more important than abiding by measures designed to protect public health.