Since police officers murdered Eric Garner in New York in 2014, his last words, “I can’t breathe,” have become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. High-profile figures like LeBron James have worn the words on T-shirts, and protesters have chanted them at anti-police-brutality demonstrations.
“I can’t breathe” aren’t just Eric Garner’s last words. In multiple fatal encounters with police, both white and Black people have said the same phrase while begging officers not to kill them. The most recent incidents include George Floyd, whose murder in Minnesota set off the latest wave of protests nationwide, and Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man in Colorado.
New York Police Department officers have also mocked Garner’s last words, wearing shirts that said “I Can Breathe” in 2014 to antagonize people protesting Garner’s murder.
On Wednesday conservatives in Scottsdale, Arizona, held a rally against face masks, protesting public health measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. At one point, in a now widely circulated video, Scottsdale city council member Guy Phillips took the microphone while wearing a mask. He yelled, “I can’t breathe” twice, before dramatically removing his mask to cheers from the crowd.
Denunciations came quickly. Scottsdale mayor Jim Lane called Phillips’s comments “callous and insensitive.” In the Arizona Republic, columnist E. J. Montini wrote that Phillips made it clear he believes it’s “acceptable to exploit the death of a man” and turn it “into a punchline.” CNN contributor Keith Boykin tweeted, “It was no joke when Eric Garner, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Manuel Ellis, Javier Ambler and Derrick Elliot Scott said ‘I can’t breathe.'”
Face masks have become a focal point among conservatives who don’t believe that the ongoing pandemic is either real or serious. In the weeks before police brutality protests swept the country, mostly white protesters staged their own protests demanding that states end measures intended to slow the spread of the virus, including requiring face masks in public. Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have refused to wear masks on many occasions. In addition to his opposition to wearing face masks, which public health officials almost unanimously agree is one of the most effective ways to fight the pandemic, the Scottsdale official, Phillips, previously shared a Facebook message, in earnest, claiming that “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.” He was forced to apologize for that bit of racist misinformation.
The New York Times is reporting that Arizona is currently “overwhelmed” with demand for coronavirus tests, and it’s one of seven states currently seeing their biggest spikes in cases since the outbreak began. As of Thursday morning, more than 122,000 Americans have died as a result of the disease, representing over a quarter of the global death toll.