Hundreds of adults, families and young people gathered inside a church hall, marched on a sidewalk and blocked a main Phoenix street on Friday night to bring attention to their message.
“Close the camps! Free the children!” they chanted throughout the night.
The rally that began with musical performances inside a church and was planned as a vigil turned into dozens of protesters shutting down traffic on Central Avenue and ended in 16 arrests. The protest left many criticizing the Phoenix Police Department and its officers for aggressively taking people into custody and forcing protesters off of a public sidewalk. The department is already under public scrutiny for its use of force following an incident last month in which a black family was held at gunpoint for allegedly shoplifting from a dollar store.
The demonstration seemed to signal a boiling point in the disdain among immigration advocates for the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“When there’s a grave injustice like this going on, everything must come to a close, how dare us continue to operate day-to-day like nothing is happening,” Rev. Redeem Robinson said Friday night, as he marched down the middle of Central Avenue. “We got people locked in these modern-day concentration camps. Everything needs to come to a screeching halt when an injustice like this is going on. That’s why we are willing to risk arrest and block everything. Everything stops.”
The rally, called Lights for Liberty, began in a standing-room only hall of the Central United Methodist Church in Phoenix. Passionate speeches celebrated immigration, called for the compassionate treatment of migrants, and denounced grim conditions in border and immigration detention facilities, which many speakers denounced as “concentration camps.”
More than 200 people then marched to the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement building nearby. A smaller group spilled onto the street and blocked light rail and vehicular traffic for about two hours, while others still held signs and demonstrated from the sidewalk.
Police repeatedly warned people they risked arrest by being on the street. Police eventually declared the demonstration an unlawful assembly.
Attorney Ray Ybarra Maldonado thinks it was excessive for police to arrest people who were walking away when they were closing-in on protesters.
“The police officers need to realize that people are protesting against one of the most inhumane policies in the history of our country: the caging of children, the separation of families,” Ybarra Maldonado said. “These individuals need an opportunity to express their freedom of speech, their discontent of the government and not be arrested simply for showing up at a protest.”
Phoenix Police is already under public scrutiny for what communities see as a history of excessive, and sometimes fatal, use of force. @AbogadoRay says yesterday’s arrests during #LightsforLiberty demonstration is a continuation of that pic.twitter.com/m76FWCJDTC
— Laura GomezRodriguez (@bylauragomezr) July 14, 2019
The protest in Phoenix wrapped up a week of news on the grim conditions migrants face in border and immigration dentention conditions — from reports of sexual abuse and other mistreatment of teens in a Yuma border facility to the Congressional testimony of a Guatemalan mother who’s baby girl got sick and died in U.S. custody.
Use of force during arrests was unnecessary, some say
For over an hour, Robinson, Angeles Maldonado, Lerman Montoya, Jessica Bristow, Kaelen Ebata and others sat on one side of the light rail tracks and ignored repeated police orders to clear the site.
A wall of police officers in black uniforms and riot gear towered over them. The demonstrators knew they were risking arrest, and were OK with that.
Lerman Montoya has been sitting on the light rail tracks for over an hour now. He shares what’s on his mind pic.twitter.com/4XvUEolH0T
— Laura GomezRodriguez (@bylauragomezr) July 13, 2019
At around 10:30 p.m., police moved in to arrest them, also pushing dozens of people off Central Avenue and onto the sidewalk.
The demonstrators on the light rail tracks linked arms. Robinson said he was knocked over by police. Maldonado said police were hurting her arm while they were arresting her. Ebata said a police officer pinned him on the pavement and put a knee on the left side of his head.
“I thought my teeth would fall out, my jaw would break… I thought I might die there,” he said, calling the forceful arrest “completely unnecessary.”
“What is required to pin someone down and cuff them… it takes less than what they used on me,” Ebata told Arizona Mirror on Sunday inside an Arizona State University student hall. He wore two bandages covering the cuts around his right eye. His voice was scratchy from the chanting and yelling Friday night.
“We were peaceful the whole time, there was no need to be that violent with arresting us,” he said. “We were all willing to get arrested, that’s why we sat there for an hour while they constantly warned us that we would be arrested, and didn’t move an inch.”
Jessica Bristow, 22, also had bruises on her arm from the arrest. She paused for several seconds when asked if she taught the police response was appropriate or excessive.
“They were doing their job. Someone told them what to do. Was it excessive? I think that’s an opinion. I’d rather keep my opinion to myself,” Bristow said.
Ebata said arresting officers didn’t read the group their Miranda rights. Maldonado and Robinson also described disorganization and “chaos” after their arrest.
“They are so disorganized, and yet they spend all this money to come out in full force, when it doesn’t even have to be that way,” Maldonado said. “I think they really need to take a serious look at the way that they do policing.”
Robinson said he was embarrassed by the city’s police force.
“A lot of unnecessary force was used yesterday. Clearly, our police force has not learned how to de-escalate situations. They still have a long way to go with learning how to deal with people and how to properly do their jobs,” Robinson said. “Yesterday, I saw a lot of incompetence. I was quite embarrassed that our city has a police force at this level.”
Police tackle, arrest man while he was giving media interview
The protest ended after police pushed people out of Central Avenue, and then off the sidewalk and into a church parking lot. One of the last people at the protest was a man who held a Soviet Union flag in one hand and a sign on the other.
He told the Mirror he was protesting the militarization of police, and what he saw as police repression of public outrage over Trump’s policies.
“When people are too intimidated to come out on the streets and protest… there is something going on and wrong,” he said while standing on a sidewalk.
His statements were cut mid-sentence when police tackled him onto a grass area and arrested him.
Police later identified him as Jorge Soria.
“That shouldn’t happen in a free country,” Ybarra Maldonado said of the case.
The Mirror asked the police department, Mayor Kate Gallego and the eight city council members whether the arrest of Soria was within police policy and whether it is considered and appropriate or excessive use of force.
Commander Steve Martos with the police department responded in a statement.
“Please allow us time to research the incident,” Martos said. “As you can imagine, there were many cameras in that area and we would like the opportunity to collect all the necessary facts prior to responding.”
Two men arrested face felonies for alleged assault on police officers
In all, 16 people were arrested — 14 of them for misdemeanor offenses (unlawful assembly and blocking a public thoroughfare), Phoenix police said. Those 14 people had their cases dismissed in a municipal court Saturday.
Two others, Jamaar Williams, 34, and Jakob Beskind, 21, each face two misdemeanor offenses and two felony charges for alleged assault of a police officer. A judge ordered both Williams and Beskind released on their own recognizance.
In a statement Saturday, Phoenix police spokeswoman Mercedes Fortune said Beskind and Williams “assaulted officers and attempted to prevent officers from arresting other suspects.”
Williams left jail Saturday night. His lawyer, Thomas Henager, said Williams did not assault police officers.
Police said in court records that they tried to arrest Williams on two occasions, but he pulled away.
“(Williams) committed aggravated assault on Officer Magee as several subjects were being pushed back away from the sidewalk. An unknown officer pushed (Williams) to get on the sidewalk, (Williams) stumbled back, when he was able to regain his balance (Williams) charged at Officer Magee thinking it was him who had pushed him,” police said in court records.
Beskind left jail early Sunday, his father Jason Beskind said. The father, a restaurant owner and former criminal defense lawyer, said his son was charged with assault for shooting silly string at a handheld camera one policeman was using to record Friday’s protest. He said the silly string hit two police officers wearing riot gear, including knee pads, boots, and helmets with visors.
In court records, police described the incident.
“While yelling chants, (Beskind) pulled out what appeared to be a small aerosol canister containing an unknown chemical agent from his right pocket. He brought the can up and sprayed two officers in the face area, striking their face shields on there (sic) riot helmets and chest with this unknown chemical agent,” police stated in the report.
Beskind’s father said he wasn’t surprised that his son participated in civil disobedience.
“He’s an activist, especially with all that is happening at the border… he’s on fire with all the stuff,” he said. “He’s always been that way. Anytime someone is being treated unfairly or there’s an injustice, he’s always reacted like that. His whole life… I’m sure he was trying to do something good, and obviously it went awry, as it sometimes does.”
No body-worn cameras
Even though Phoenix approved in February a five-year $5.7 million contract for body cameras — after years of community activists pushing city leaders to do so — most of the police officers facing protesters at Friday’s demonstration were not wearing recording devices.
Fortune, the police spokeswoman, said some did wear them. She confirmed community response detectives – who aren’t dressed in standard police uniforms and often work to communicate more candidly with the crowd – wore body cameras on Friday.
“Our Downtown Operations officers have not been issued (body-worn cameras),” Fortune said. “They are part of our second phase of our body-worn camera rollout.”
She said it’s possible other patrol officers who responded to the scene did have cameras on them, but she was working to confirm the information.
“We are actively collecting information and I would ask for a little time to provide you with facts,” Fortune added.
The police department is expected to have all 1,200 cameras deployed in all seven precincts by mid-August, according to KJZZ.
Time in jail was a reminder of migrant detention
Two of the demonstrators who were arrested, Angeles Maldonado and Jessica Bristow, said the time spent in jail cemented their beliefs of why they showed up to the Friday rally in the first place.
Like them, migrant fathers, mothers, teens and children are spending time in detention facilities meant for short-term stay. Several of the border detention facilities have been found to be severely overcrowded and unsanitary. And migrants families have also spent several days, sometimes weeks, in those cells, fare more than 72-hour limit.
While Maldonado and Bristow were in the county jail for about 24-hours, they said the holding cells were filthy and overcrowded.
“Seeing the conditions of being in jail just reminds me why we did what we did,” Maldonado said Saturday night, moments after she was released from jail. “I cannot imagine a child, and a mother and other people being there. And not just one day… unable to eat, being treated like you are not human, not being given water – all those things, to some extent, it’s similar. As a mother it hurts me, it makes me feel really guilty to imagine another mother suffering.”
Bristow was pensive Saturday night as she sat on the steps outside the Maricopa County Fourth Avenue jail. She spent the night there, and spoke with measured words.
Her hope is that the protest and her arrest bring more attention to the issue of migrant detention and treatment.
“We should be welcoming to our brothers and sisters,” she said. “If they’re not free, neither am I. This is a living analogy: me being in jail while they are also in jail. I am not free, neither are they.”