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‘I can’t breathe’: Politician apologizes for using George Floyd’s dying words to protest mask rule

Scottsdale Councilman Guy Phillips protests face masks by saying ‘I can’t breathe’
WATCH: During a rally in Arizona on Wednesday, Scottsdale Coun. Guy Phillips claimed he couldn’t breathe before removing a face mask he was wearing. Phillips told the crowd that face masks should be a personal choice.

A city councillor in Scottsdale, Ariz., has apologized after using George Floyd‘s dying words at a rally to protest new mask and face-covering mandates that aim to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In video footage of Coun. Guy Phillips‘ address at the rally, he can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” before removing his mask. The crowd cheers.

A group gathered at Scottsdale City Hall on Wednesday morning after Gov. Doug Ducey announced that local governments were allowed to set their own mask rule if they chose to do so.

Immediately after, cities like Phoenix and Tucson announced their intent to make mask-wearing mandatory for residents, ABC15 says.

Read more: White mothers come together to design Black Lives Matter signs

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“We are not in Russia,” Phillips continues in the video. “We are in the U.S.A. We can make our own choices.”

He said he’d happily wear a mask to respect his fellow citizens, but “when the government threatens me with fines or possible arrest if I don’t conform, then I protest.”

George Floyd protests: U.S. House set to pass police reform bill named after Floyd
George Floyd protests: U.S. House set to pass police reform bill named after Floyd

Phillips has since apologized for the use of the phrase in a statement to the Arizona Republic.

“He (Floyd) didn’t deserve what happened to him and I by no means was trying to make light of it by saying I cant (sic) breathe in a mask,” Phillips told the paper. “Please accept my sincerest apology and that goes out to anyone who became offended.”

The phrase “I can’t breathe” has become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. They’ve been the dying words of Black men like Floyd, who was killed after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold by another white police officer.

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Various Arizona politicians have denounced Phillips’ comments, with Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane tweeting: “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. I sincerely hope he understands how wrong that was and offers a sincere apology.”

Sen. Martha McSally called Phillips’ comments “despicable” on Twitter.

Read more: Heartbreaking video shows Black child, 10, hiding from police car while in his own yard

“This is a serious moment in history and it’s disgusting you are mocking the dying words of a murdered man,” she wrote.

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In May, Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes and ignored his cries of distress. The officer has since been charged with second-degree murder, while three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

In August 2014, Garner’s death was ruled a homicide caused by neck compressions from a chokehold. That same year, a state grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who held him in a chokehold. Pantaleo was fired in 2019. Federal authorities kept a civil rights investigation open for five years before announcing in July 2019 that they wouldn’t bring charges.

Since then, anti-Black racism protesters have printed the phrase “I can’t breathe” on signs and masks, emphasizing the tragedy of their deaths and the deaths of many other Black people in the U.S. and Canada.

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meaghan.wray@globalnews.ca