Jorge Soria turned to face a reporter, who asked him to explain the flag he brought to a July 12 rally. He didn’t know Phoenix police were finalizing a plan to take the 62-year-old man into custody.
As Soria began to answer the reporter’s question, a police officer ran up behind him. The officer grabbed Soria’s neck, spun him and pushed him face down to the ground. Soria landed in an irrigation puddle. Other officers surrounded him.
A police spokeswoman later explained the Phoenix Police Department’s stance. Police said they moved to tackle and arrest Soria when he and another man, Nick Abbitt, briefly yelled at each other. They planned to arrest them both, police said, and told Arizona Mirror in a statement that they had done so.
But records and witness accounts show they instead arrested Phil Martinez. About an hour earlier, police had asked Abbitt to leave the rally after he was involved in a shouting match with several protesters.
Soria told the Mirror he believes police racially profiled him, and Martinez claimed police targeted him.
“I know it was not a coincidence that both Phil and I are Latinos,” he said.
Soria is talking with attorneys and exploring a civil case against the City of Phoenix and its police department, he said.
The arrests of Soria and Martinez wrapped up an otherwise nonviolent and energetic protest where hundreds gathered at the Central United Methodist Church and marched to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s main office in Phoenix. They denounced immigration and border policies harming migrant fathers, mothers and children.
After some demonstrators took over several lanes of traffic on Central Avenue and the light rail tracks, the police declared the protest an unlawful assembly.
Police repeatedly and clearly asked the crowd to disperse.
In all, 16 people were arrested during the July 12 protest.
Angeles Maldonado had bruises showing what she considered was excessive use of force during her arrest. Kaelen Ebata had cuts in his right temple from a police officer pressing his face on the pavement with his knee during the arrest.
Soria, Martinez, Maldonado, Ebata and 10 others had alleged misdemeanor offenses (unlawful assembly and blocking a public thoroughfare), but all of those 14 cases were dismissed in a municipal court within 24 hours of the arrests.
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.
In the past two months in Phoenix, there have been several multi-million dollar claims alleging police misconduct, including a family who had guns drawn on them after a shoplifting incident; a woman alleging police sexually assaulted her; the family of a man shot and killed by police; and a man paralyzed after a police shooting.
Last year, Phoenix ranked first nationwide for the largest number of police shootings.
‘My arrest was illegal’
Minutes before his arrest, Soria had stared down a line of Phoenix police officers several feet away from him. He thought they — with riot helmets, body armor, pepperball guns and boots — were there to intimidate the public, not to protect them.
He also thought he, as an American, had a right to stand on that sidewalk in central Phoenix, to hold a Soviet Union flag and a sign critical of police, and to share his thoughts with the press.
Police said they purposely used the “element of surprise” in Soria’s arrest. The Phoenix New Times reported that Soria’s arrest does not seem to have followed use of force protocol, but police said in a statement that their use of force was within its policy.
Soria called it excessive.
“My arrest is illegal,” he told the Mirror several days later.
Soria also recalled what he felt during his arrest — his first in 62 years: “A little bit of terror, because I didn’t know what was going on. You’re just standing there, speaking to someone, and next thing you know you’re on the mud, in the water.”
He let out a chuckle in disbelief.
“And two or three guys are … (they) got you down, grabbing you and hurting you. I didn’t know what was going on, I really didn’t. And I didn’t know I was being arrested. They didn’t even tell me what they were arresting me for,” Soria said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which in 2018 sued the city and police Chief Jeri Williams claiming excessive use of force during a protest outside a President Donald Trump rally, said in a statement that Soria’s arrest is part of a culture in the Phoenix Police Department.
“This is not the first time that the Phoenix Police Department has reacted violently to peaceful protesters. In 2017, the Phoenix Police Department launched a barrage of projectiles and chemical irritants at hundreds of individuals peacefully assembled to protest President Trump and his policies,” the ACLU said. “A video shows Jorge Soria talking to a reporter about the public’s fear of police violence at large protest events when Phoenix Police officers threw him to the ground and arrested him. This video is just the latest example of a culture of violence and brutality within the Phoenix Police Department — a culture which Chief Williams and her command staff have repeatedly failed to adequately address.”
The ACLU is not currently representing Soria.
‘Always protect your rights’
Soria was raised to stand up for his rights. He grew up playing in agricultural fields, where he sometimes worked harvesting apples, peaches, watermelons, cucumbers and potatoes throughout the Southwest.
His mother was from Texas, his father a Mexican immigrant who worked under the Bracero Program, which brought millions of guestworks from Mexico to the U.S. His father, like many other braceros, was cheated out of his wages, Soria said.
“That soured my dad,” Soria, a retired telecom technician, recalled. “He told us, ‘Never take any stuff from anybody, especially the white man. He is the one in power, he is the one to watch out for. Never take any stuff from them. Always protect your rights.’”
That’s why, for all of his adult life, Soria has preferred to vote in person.
“See, I never voted through the mail, because I wanted the white people to see me there, voting. Because it was important to me to be seen, for a Latino to be seen,” he said.
His father’s lessons are also why, on a recent Friday night, while watching a live TV newscast showing Phoenix police officers in riot gear facing down more than a hundred demonstrators protesting the detention of migrant families, Soria decided to join them.
“When you make law-breakers out of law-abiding citizens, you need to be stopped,” Soria said.
He had spent all day doing yard work, and had to attend the funeral for his brother, Alfonso Jr., the next afternoon. Instead of staying in, Soria went to his closet and brought out his Soviet Union flag, which he bought to mock Trump’s Russian connections at his first campaign rally in Phoenix in 2015. Soria also found the sign he made for a protest denouncing the death of Antonio Arce, a 14-year-old killed by the Tempe Police Department in January.
The sign read, “Police — Heroes. No! Child killers. Yes!”
“Don’t get arrested,” Soria remembered his brother, Robert, quipped as he stepped out of his Maryvale home and was met with the hot air of a Phoenix summer night.
Soria said he opposes Trump’s policies on immigration because it’s criminalizing migrants who are lawfully seeking asylum.
“The children and the women and some of the men… they can’t defend themselves,” Soria said. “They’re treating them like criminals. They are making criminals out of non-criminals.”
About an hour after he left his home, Soria said police had also made him a criminal, when he was not.
Police records don’t explain use of force
The Mirror obtained the arrest documents for Soria through a public records request.
In the police’s account of the incident, officer Jeffrey Miel noted that Soria tried to “avoid arrest.” In the space where police explain that attempt to avoid arrest, Miel wrote, “Remained unlawfully.”
In the police’s probable cause statement, where an officer summarizes that facts that justified an arrest, Miel’s explanation wasn’t specific to Soria’s case. Miel’s account was word-for-word what other officers wrote for Aarin Benjamin and Annestelle Pedreiro, who were among the group that blocked the light rail tracks for nearly an hour, according to the Mirror’s review of arrest records.
“For well over an hour, the crowd was given multiple commands to disband the assembly. The commands were given that they were obstructing a thoroughfare and unlawfully assembly (sic), in addition, remaining would result in a violation of an unlawful assembly and they would be arrested. The defendant remained unlawfully on the property and continued to obstruct a thoroughfare by staying in the roadway and failing to listen to commands given by a peace officer multiple times,” Miel reported.
Soria said he was never on the street with the rest of the crowd, or by the light rail tracks. Instead, he stayed in the church property and sidewalk areas facing the police with his flag and his sign, he said.
After reviewing different videos of the incident, Sgt. Mercedes Fortune, a police spokeswoman, explained why Soria was arrested. Fortune said he was still in the area even after police had repeatedly and clearly asked the crowd to disperse.
“People thought that they were on the sidewalk and it’s OK. The law doesn’t say that. Once an unlawful assembly has been declared, you can not be in the area. Period,” Fortune said. “You can’t be on the sidewalk, on the grass, on the parking lot. If it’s in the area, you can’t be there.”
Fortune also said it was necessary to tackle Soria in order to safely arrest him.
“Mr. Soria was holding a flag stick, and in order to prevent the use of the stick as a weapon against them, the officers used the force necessary to take him into custody,” she said.
Fortune added that police decided to arrest Soria when they saw him and another man “involved in a verbal argument.”
That man was Nick Abbitt, a counterprotester and Trump supporter. Throughout the night, people confronted Abbitt about the gun holstered to his hip, others called him “Nazi” and “white nationalist” and a few candidly talked to him about gun policy and asylum laws.
Police had also taken note of Abbitt. About an hour before Soria’s arrest, police had told Abbitt to leave the rally.
Police asked armed counterprotester to leave
Abbitt was live-streaming his time at the protest.
At one point, he was in a shouting match with a few people gathered near the sidewalk, far from where the civil disobedience actions were taking place on Central Avenue.
One person repeatedly called Abbitt a Nazi. He called himself the “embodiment of the American nationalist” and later said, “There is no such thing as racism.”
Two Phoenix police community response detectives, who wore body cameras, approached Abbitt.
“We’re going to recommend you to leave,” a police detective said.
Abbitt replied, “Oh okay, I’m protecting somebody here. I’ll just stop talking to anybody. I’m doing private security.”
“Well, you’re not doing a good job of protecting, no offense,” the police detective said. “Back up.”
“I’ll back up,” Abbitt responded. He then walked away from the protest.
“I got banned from the rally, but I’ll probably sneak around the back,” he said on his live stream.
Abbitt told the Mirror he was at the rally mainly to protect Tim Gionet, also known as Baked Alaska. As reported by the New Times, Gionet has ties with far-right and Neo-Nazi groups, and was a “featured speaker at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he participated in the torch-lit march while shouting, ‘You will not replace us!’”
Abbitt returned to the rally, this time walking on Central Avenue to find Gionet. There, more people confronted him. Abbitt got in heated arguments the rest of the night.
Police moved in to arrest the group sitting on the light rail tracks, and pushed people out of Central Avenue. They stood in a line on the edge of the sidewalk.
People still gathered in a small area by one of the entrances to the Central United Methodist Church.
When Abbitt spotted Soria flying the Soviet Union flag, he urged police to “arrest that commie.” Soria walked up to him and used a slur for gay people.
The crowd thinned as police pushed people away from the sidewalk and the main gathering area.
Soria, Abbitt, Gionet and a few others remained. Several TV crews did live reports.
The Mirror talked to Soria. He said the militarization of police was on his mind. He held the Soviet Union flag in one had, explaining that it symbolized his belief that America is heading on a similar path of repressed dissent and limited free expression.
“I brought this flag as a symbol to remind the Americans what, when people are too intimidated to come out on the streets and protest, there’s something wrong, there’s something going on wrong,” he said.
Abbitt yelled at Soria. The Mirror asked Abbitt to wait for the interview to be over to talk to Soria.
That’s when police made the decision to arrest, Fortune said. Meanwhile, the Mirror’s interview with Soria resumed.
“Officers prepared an arrest team and utilized the element of surprise to arrest both Mr. Soria and the other man who had been seen arguing with Mr. Soria in the area,” Fortune said.
As police tackled Soria, Abbitt cheered.
“They got him! They got him!,” he said. Other officers moved towards him and a group that was walking away.
“I’m on your side, I’m on your side,” Abbitt said.
Police nabbed Phil Martinez. Several officers pushed him to a metal barricade and arrested him there.
“This wasn’t right,” Martinez thought. “It’s an unlawful arrest, I hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Martinez told the Mirror he stumbled into the protest less than 15 minutes before he was in police custody.
His Friday night plans were to get drinks with friends in Tempe, he said. He was on his way there on the light rail, but the protest had shut down service. He was told to walk to the next station.
Martinez said there were so few people left from the rally, he thought police would let him use the sidewalk they were blocking.
Instead, he was arrested for blocking a public thoroughfare and unlawful assembly.
“They’re the ones blocking the public throughway. And it’s funny, I am the one charged with blocking a public throughway when I wasn’t even there when it happened,” Martinez said. “I got charged with the same of being a protestor.”
He said he doesn’t understand why police let Abbitt walk away without incident, but arrested him.
“He should’ve been one of the ones who was targeted to grab, but instead they decided to go all around him and make a move for me… It didn’t make any sense,” Martinez said.
“I don’t understand how guys with guns were passed up,” he said. “How do you miss an armed person? It’s supposed to be all about safety. It’s kind of nuts… He was allowed to leave there safely.”
Soria, Martinez say police targeted them
While he was taken into custody, red and blue lights flashing from the patrol cars around him, Martinez said a police sergeant called him by his name. “We know who you are,” the police sergeant told him.
Martinez has been to other immigration rallies and protests critical of police. He also speaks at Phoenix City Council meetings asking for the police to do better.
He believes on July 12 police targeted him for arrest because his past statements, he said.
Fortune, the police spokeswoman, disputed that.
“We don’t target people just because they’ve done things in the past. We react to that moment,” she said. “I am sorry that he feels that he was targeted, but we do not target people because I remember you from a different incident. That’s horrible. And I like to believe that we don’t do that, as a police department we will never say that I’m going to arrest you because I saw you last week at a rally. No, we arrest based on probable cause.”
Soria said he was targeted because of his flag. When police escorted him to a van after his arrest, he said he heard police speak favorably that they got “the guy with the flag.”
But Soria also thinks his skin color played a role in his arrest, especially because of who was not arrested.
“I know it is not a coincidence that both of those guys that they didn’t touch, that were stirring up the crowd, they were the ones doing actions that would start a riot… Funny how they didn’t get charged,” Soria said.
Asked to respond to Soria’s allegation of racial profiling, Sgt. Vince Lewis, a police spokesman, said Wednesday afternoon, “Anyone wishing to report an incident alleging officer misconduct is encouraged to contact our Professional Standards Bureau.”