Arizona councilman sparks backlash after saying 'I can't breathe' at anti-mask rally

A Republican city council member in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Wednesday apologized after drawing fierce backlash from across the state for repeatedly saying the words "I can't breathe" during an anti-mask rally.

Guy Phillips (R) made the remarks while speaking at a rally expressing opposition to the Scottsdale mayor's announcement that all residents must wear face coverings as part of an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Video captured at the event showed Phillips taking the microphone while wearing a mask and twice saying, “I can't breathe,” words that have become a rallying cry after they were heard being said by George Floyd before his death in Minneapolis police custody last month.

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Phillips then tore the mask off, before calling a mask mandate "insanity." 

Floyd, 46, died on May 25 after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd repeatedly said, "I can't breathe." His death has sparked nationwide demonstrations, with many calling for police reform and greater law enforcement accountability.

Phillips's use of the words quickly generated outrage among Arizona lawmakers, as well as calls from some for him to resign.

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Phillips told The Arizona Republic that his comments had no connection to Floyd's death, saying that "it was hot and stuffy" at the event.

"I am sorry about a comment I made today that was the same comment Mr. Floyd had made," he added, according to the newspaper. "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 apology came after Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) said that "anyone who mocks the murder of a fellow human has no place in public office."

"Just flat out wrong. Despicable doesn’t go far enough," Ducey said in a tweet. "The final words of George Floyd should NEVER be invoked like this."

Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallySenate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE (R-Ariz.) and Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane (R) also condemned Phillips's remarks. Lane said in a statement that the use of the words "I can't breathe" was "callous and insensitive," adding that they did not reflect the values of the city.

Lane last week issued an emergency proclamation mandating people to wear masks in public. The order, which came as Arizona experiences a surge in coronavirus cases, requires people to wear face coverings in grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants and other venues.