Anger at police violence spawns protests, curfew and arrests

By: - June 1, 2020 11:14 am

A small altar with candles and flowers was set up at Eastlake Park in Phoenix on May 29, 2020, at a vigil for Dion Johnson, a 28-year-old man who was shot and killed by an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper. Johnson’s family is demanding transparency and accountability on the fatal incident as nationwide protests condemn police and prosecutors for the deaths of other black Americans, including George Floyd in Minnesota, Breona Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. Photo by: Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Two black men who died on May 25 after encounters with law enforcement in separate incidents in Arizona and Minnesota motivated hundreds to demonstrate against police violence over the weekend in Phoenix. 

Dion Johnson, 28, died in north Phoenix after the Arizona Department of Public Safety found him asleep in his car. Police said DPS shot Johnson during a struggle, but have provided no other details. 

Half a country away, 46-year-old George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.

Floyd’s death, captured on video by bystanders, has sparked demonstrations nationally. Johnson’s family knows next to nothing about the events that preceded his death, and has called for more transparency to understand why a trooper fatally shot him. 

In Phoenix, a vigil was held for Johnson on Friday evening. Demonstrations against police brutality continued that night in downtown Phoenix, and as police responded to disperse the crowds, some protesters broke windows and vandalized public and private spaces, according to news reports

Demonstrations continued on Saturday. Protests in downtown Phoenix were met with police in riot gear. Rioters in Scottsdale planned to ransack an upscale mall on social media, then did so that evening, looting shops at Scottsdale Fashion Square and then in the suburb’s downtown business district, according to The Arizona Republic. 

The day’s events led Gov. Doug Ducey to implement a statewide curfew that began Sunday and lasts through June 8. 

Kenya Collins, a Laveen resident, said Sunday afternoon it was his fourth day participating in rallies. He is the father of five black boys, he said, ages 18, 16, twins aged 12, and a newborn. Collins wore a facemask with the slogan “Hands up don’t shoot” written over it, a reference to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Collins said demonstrating against police violence is “way too important” and he pointed to two of his sons walking ahead of him. 

“They’re young. They look older than their age. They’re going to have run-ins with the law,” he said. “God forbid I’m going to have to march for them.”

Kenya Collins phoenix protest
Kenya Collins, a Laveen resident, poses for a photo in downtown Phoenix during a demonstration on May 31, 2020, to denounce the deaths of George Floyd, who died shortly after going unconscious while a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee on his neck, and Dion Johnson, who was shot and killed by an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper. Both Floyd and Johnson died on May 25, 2020. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Collins said he knew Johnson. They played basketball together. 

“Stuff like that, it hurts. It hits home,” Collins said. “He was a good soul. Kind heart. He showed up if you needed him… For him to go like that is wrong.”

During the Friday vigil for Johnson, his mother, aunt, sisters and cousins remembered the 28-year-old man. They said that he was smart and talented. That he would help his neighbors take out the trash if they needed it. That he was respectful toward police. That his death, and the little details they know about it, are unjust. 

They wrote #WeSleepWeDie on posters with Johnson’s pictures.

Shikoya Hartley, a south Phoenix resident, also reflected on how local and national incidents showing the death of black men and women weighs on parents. 

“I’m raising a black boy. It weighs differently on a parent raising a black child,” she said. 

Hartley said her 5-year-old son, Micki, should admire cops. Instead, he fears them. As she spoke, Micki jumped down from the stage where he was sitting, a red Spider Man mask dangling from his hands. He hugged her. 

“I’m tired of it. Tired of the same story line. We are here for Dion, but just everything that has been going on. I’m getting tired of these cops killing black men for no reason,” she said as she brushed her right hand over her boy’s head. “We need a new narrative. Cops arrest bad guys, that’s the narrative, not killing black men.”

Hartley’s best friend is Johnson’s cousin, she said. 

Hours before the Friday vigil was scheduled to be held outside the DPS headquarters, the area was fenced off to hinder the gathering. Instead, the mourners gathered at Eastlake Park east of downtown Phoenix.

Phoenix police, which is investigating Johnson’s death, also announced there is no video footage of the fatal encounter with Johnson. 

DPS troopers aren’t equipped with body-worn cameras, which have been implemented in law enforcement agencies across the country as a tool to improve transparency and accountability. In January, Ducey proposed $4.8 million to purchase 1,267 body cameras for DPS sworn staff “to enhance trooper safety, improve agency efficiency, and promote public transparency.”

But that budget request was brushed aside when the coronavirus pandemic upended the annual legislative session and lawmakers opted to pass a bare-bones budget instead of considering new spending proposals.

Twenty DPS troopers have body-worn cameras, according to a Cronkite News report from March.

On Friday evening, Erma Johnson, Dion’s mother, spoke into a microphone, with a face mask pulled down under her chin. The sunset painted a strip of pink and orange on the west sky. 

“I should’ve been the one laying in a casket,” she said. “I respect all my officers, I don’t have a problem with them. But it’s time for change.”

She, and other advocate groups, are calling for DPS to release a report on the encounter, any camera footage, the name of the trooper who fatally shot Dion, and to fire and charge the trooper. 

Zarra Teacola, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix, said the family hadn’t seen Johnson’s body as of Friday evening. 

“Even in our deaths, we do not get respect,” she said. 

Teacola is also involved with a group that gathers food and other essential resources for communities in need in the Phoenix area impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This is another pandemic of police violence in the U.S. When is it going to stop?” she said. 

Armonee Jackson phoenix protest
Armonee Jackson (center), president of the Arizona State University NAACP, called on Gov. Doug Ducey and state lawmakers to implement policies that address police violence and pressed for answers on the case of Dion Johnson during a rally in downtown Phoenix on May 31, 2020. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

The Sunday afternoon demonstration started earlier than initially planned because of Ducey’s curfew. 

Armonee Jackson, president of the Arizona State University NAACP, called on Ducey to respond to Johnson’s death. 

“Where are our leaders at now? If there’s a leader, policies would be put in place. We need laws put in place to protect our rights,” she said through a megaphone to a young crowd of hundreds that gathered Sunday afternoon in downtown Phoenix. 

The crowd marched peacefully for a couple of hours, stopping in front of the Phoenix Police Department headquarters.

Manuel Robinson phoenix protest
Army veteran Manuel Robinson, 75,  participated in a downtown Phoenix rally on May 31, 2020 to denounce police violence and the deaths of black Americans. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Manuel Robinson, 75, participated in the rally using his electric wheelchair. He is an Army veteran who lost his right leg in combat. He showed up “to give back.”  

“I was in Vietnam for two tours,” he said. He looked up at the sky, where a police helicopter circled the crowd. “I did a lot of bad things in Vietnam. This makes up for what I did. This is the least I can do. This is my country, they sent me overseas, to a depressed country that they said that they didn’t have rights. And at least I can make sure we have rights here. That’s all.”

Phoenix police said Monday morning that more than 200 adults and 10 juveniles were arrested for various offenses, including violating the curfew, unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct and rioting.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for education, immigration, political, and public safety reporting and Spanish-language news and feature reporting. Laura worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.