Phoenix police chief addresses demonstrators on Day 9 of protests




A woman holds up a sign that reads “black lives matter” at an anti-police violence demonstration that brought hundreds of protesters to the streets of downtown Phoenix on June 5, 2020. Photo by Madeline Ackley | Arizona Mirror

Hundreds gathered at Phoenix City Hall with signs, chanting “black lives matter” as helicopters whirred overhead and police blocked off surrounding streets in the heart of downtown Phoenix.  

It’s a sight that has become familiar, as Phoenix concluded its ninth day of protests following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, which has sparked protests nationwide and focused much of the nation on the long-simmering debate about police violence toward minorities.

Demonstrators chanted the names of George Floyd, Dion Johnson and Breonna Taylor, all black Americans who have died at the hands of police in recent months. Taylor would have been 27 on Friday, and at one point the crowd sang happy birthday to her in unison. 

Protesters marched in the 106-degree heat from City Hall to gather around Phoenix Police Department Headquarters where Chief of Police Jeri Williams addressed the crowd for several minutes.

Police Chief Jeri Williams
Phoenix Chief of Police Jeri Williams (center) addresses the crowd of hundreds of protesters outside Phoenix Police Headquarters on June 5, 2020. “We hear you,” Phoenix’s first black chief of police said to the crowd. Photo by Madeline Ackley | Arizona Mirror

In her short speech, Williams, the city’s first black woman police chief, promised to work together to “look at policies” and voiced her support of peaceful protesters. 

“I am beside myself with disbelief and joy at the voices of this generation making voices of my generation be silent … for this I commend you,” Williams told the crowd to applause. “Thank you so much for ending things peacefully. That is what is really resonating with all of us and is forcing us to listen,” she said. 

Some in the crowd weren’t buying it. One protester shouted, “Stop the killing!”  

As protests rage on day after day, public officials are now addressing the demonstrations more and more. Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday spoke about the protests for the first time since implementing a statewide 8 p.m. curfew on May 31. 

Ducey condemned the killing of Floyd, which he called “tragic,” and affirmed protesters’ rights to peacefully assemble. However, the governor, who is the son of a police officer, stopped short of declaring that systemic racism is a problem within the Phoenix Police Department and did not commit to police reforms. 

“Arizona will not confuse peaceful protesters and demonstrators with looters and rioters,” he said Thursday. “We are looking at this as an American moment where change can happen for the better.”

For Jacob Harshman, Ducey’s words ring hollow.  

“It’s kind of troubling … for him to come out and say, ‘Hey, I want to meet with people in the black community, black community leaders … but he doesn’t hear what they say.” 

He said he has “zero trust in police.” 

Harshman, who is white, has a blended, multiracial family. He has a 17-year-old daughter, Keyilah Harshman, who is white. His partner, Janae Estill, is black; together, they have a toddler-aged son and a baby on the way.  

“I am here for my brother and my family… I am here to support the black community,” Keyilah Harshman said .

“It’s just very straightforward,” Estill said. “We’re tired … we want to see change… As our family grows, we want to make sure our community … is behind us.” 

Estill and Harshman said they want to help make the world a safer place for their expanding family. 

It’s a sentiment echoed in many of the signage and language used by protesters: anxiety that they, their family, friends or children could die next at the hands of police.

A young black girl carried a sign that implored, “Please don’t kill my dad.” 

Another sign carried by a black woman read, “I’m scared to have sons because I’m afraid the police will kill them.”

In 2018, police shootings in Arizona reached a record high of 117. That number has since declined, but accusations of racial profiling and excessive force continue to dog the Phoenix Police Department. 

Fe’La Iniko
Activist Fe’La Iniko addresses a crowd of hundreds gathered downtown, June 5, 2020, for the ninth consecutive day of protests in Phoenix following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25. Photo by Madeline Ackley | Arizona Mirror

During the last week-and-a-half of protests, many downtown residents have complained of excessive tactics on the part of police. 

The first night of the curfew on May 31, for example, residents of the Garfield historic neighborhood compiled reports that officers arrested them on their own property, used tear gas against them and shot bean bag rounds after corralling protesters into their neighborhood shortly after the curfew went into effect.

Many of the protesters expressed mistrust of police. Leah Hendrickson, 17, said when she attended a protest in Chandler on Tuesday, police took a knee in solidarity with the protesters. 

“The cops started kneeling with us,” Hendrickson, who is white, said. “But I overheard one of the cops say ‘Why are we kneeling?’ in the middle of a moment of silence for George Floyd … so I don’t really think it’s genuine.”

***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Jeri Williams was the first Black police chief of the Phoenix Police Department; she is the first Black woman to lead the department.