“I Can’t Breathe”: It’s Been Three Years, and Still No Justice for Muhammad Muhaymin

Content warning: This article provides graphic details about the murder of an unarmed Black man struggling with mental illness, who was murdered by law enforcement.

So far 2020 has not been a kind year to us. It began with Kobe Bryant’s death in January, then spiraled into the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic. It quickly reached the U.S., and even while some people insisted it was still just like the flu, it spread like wildfire, taking many lives with it. While police brutality and vigilante violence against unarmed Black people has been a thing for years, the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery drew attention to these injustices on a worldwide scale. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery sparked a fire within communities, prompting the civil rights movement of 2020. Protests, marches, bans, and petitioning is at an all-time high. “I can’t breathe” became a slogan to these protests, marking some of the last words of George Floyd.

But “I can’t breathe” didn’t start with George Floyd. Eric Garner said it as he was being murdered by police in 2014. And just a few years after that, in January 2017, in Phoenix, Arizona, these words also emerged from another unarmed Black man, who was also a victim of the local law enforcement. Muhammad Muhaymin, 43, struggled with mental illness and was frequently homeless. He was attempting to use the bathroom in the Maryvale Community Center while carrying his chihuahua, a dog that his case manager referred to as an “emotional support.”  As told by a security guard, Muhaymin had used this facility multiple times before to wash up and clean up his dog. Because he suffered from schizophrenia and anxiety, he was known to act erratically at times in the lobby of the Community Center. But on this particular morning, an employee refused to let Muhaymin into the bathroom with his dog, and called 911.

“I can’t breathe!” – Eric Garner, 2014

“I can’t breathe!” – George Floyd, 2020

“I can’t breathe!” – Muhammad Muhaymin, 2017

Four police officers — Oswald Grenier, Jason Hobel, Ronaldo Canilao and David Head — arrived at the scene, and after asking a few questions, said they would allow Muhaymin to use the restroom and leave. This did not happen. While Muhaymin was in the bathroom, Grenier ran a background check and discovered he had a warrant out of Mesa, a suburb of Pheonix, for failure to appear in court over a misdemeanor possession of a marijuana pipe. Grenier also is seen saying in body cam footage that he has dealt with Muhaymin before. Hobel also is heard saying that Muhaymin is mentally ill. But this call still resulted in a swift attempt to arrest Muhaymin outside of the facility, an attempt that had multiple police officers on top of him on the pavement. Eight minutes later, Muhaymin was dead, and his dog was nowhere to be seen.

In legal paperwork submitted by law enforcement, it was stated that Muhaymin assaulted a government employee. But new body camera footage shows that this was not the case; that the employee himself can be seen saying that he was not assaulted. The court document states that he “tensed up, thrashed about, pushed and kicked at officers.” Body cam footage also contradicts this, as none of these actions seem to be true. Officers are seen trying to pry the dog out of Muhaymin’s arms and wrestling him to the ground in an attempt to search him for weapons. Muhaymin is heard pleading for his dog saying “Officer, that’s my child.” He is heard screaming saying “I can’t breathe!” at least four times. Additional officers arrive at the scene where they put more restraints on him. Minutes after, a total of six police officers press him in to the pavement, Muhaymim continues to yell, groan, vomit, and go limp. He is then pronounced dead at 10:04 am. 34 minutes after he walked into the community center.

Dr. Amanda Maskovyak labeled Muhaymin’s death a homicide and the family’s expert witness Dr. Omalu also says that Muhaymin’s death was caused by “asphyxiation due to compression of his trunk and body.” He was under tremendous physical strain for eight minutes until he vomited, which entered his airway, cutting off oxygen to his brain, and ultimately causing his death.

Authorities told multiple news and social media outlets that Muhaymin was assaulting police officers and the facility employee. But this new body cam footage shows something else. In the case of George Floyd, four officers were arrested. But in this case, we are still waiting for the men who are responsible to be taken in to custody. These men are not only still serving on the police force, but are getting promoted, as one is now a detective. After Muhaymin’s death, the Phoenix Police Department conducted an investigation and found no wrongdoing in how officers dealt with the situation. David Chami, the Muhaymin family attorney, states that “There’s an incentive to find no wrongdoing.” The family is suing the city for $10 million in a wrongful death suit. This case is expected to go to trial early in 2021.

Phoenix’s law enforcement has gained a reputation for police brutality in the past several years. These new and raw body cam videos shed light on how these officers speak about Muhaymin and his dog, who was never found. They show that officers knew Muhaymin had mental health issues, and still chose not to handle him in a humane way. There is no way that Muhammad Muhaymin should have been killed that fateful morning. Instead of having four armed police officers show up on the scene and just escalate the situation, wouldn’t a mental health worker have been a better solution? These questions may or may not ever get answered. But it is up to us, the people, to fight on behalf of those who have no voice anymore. We must continue to protest and demand justice for those who will never see it in this world. Because in this fight, we may be able to prevent this from happening again.

You can sign a petition to support bringing his murders to justice here.