As a practicing attorney in the Valley, I have witnessed many injustices over the decades. Our country is beginning to discover what Black and Brown communities have known for far too long: our criminal justice system is rife with systemic racism that has resulted in an inflated prison population, over-criminalization, and racial injustice.
The video of George Floyd gasping for air as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes is horrifying. So was the video of Philando Castile. And the video of Eric Garner. And yet the frightening truth is that it’s a scene we will see play out again and again if America refuses to acknowledge the racism present in its law enforcement institutions.
This is what has driven thousands of people across the country to exercise their right to assemble and take to the streets. We are sick of watching Black men be murdered by those sworn to protect us. We are expressing our despair and hurt to the public and to the government in the way many have done before us. The right to protest is one of the most fundamental values we hold in America.
I attended the protests in Phoenix to ensure residents could freely use their First Amendment rights, and I was extremely disappointed to be met with police violence and escalation at the hands of the Phoenix Police Department.
This is a critical time, and local leaders should be listening to their communities’ fears and concerns. Rather than welcome a dialogue and allow people to express their opinions, Phoenix police indiscriminately fired smoke, tear gas and rubber bullets into a largely peaceful crowd. I saw small children running away from tear gas, medics attending to protesters as they screamed in pain and police officers pursuing protesters as they tried to leave.
The use of these weapons that harm the respiratory functions is particularly violent at a time when Arizona is experiencing increased COVID-19 hospitalizations. Similarly, we saw hundreds of indiscriminate arrests without probable cause that forced innocent people into crowded jail cells where a viral infection can easily spread.
I represented numerous individuals at their initial appearances inside the 4th Avenue Jail. I heard from one man who was not even attending the protest but was having dinner downtown. To me, it seemed like it was due to the color of his skin that he was pulled out of his car and charged with a felony.
Others were driving downtown to pick up a loved one only to be removed from their cars and taken into custody. I had to call a teenage girl who was watching her 4-month-old sister because both of the adults were arrested when they went downtown to give their niece a ride home.
Many of those I spoke with said the arresting officers ignored the risks of COVID-19, packing them in small quarters without masks or hand sanitizer.
In Phoenix, we’ve seen how rapidly interactions with police can take an aggressive turn. The Phoenix Police Department has a documented history of trampling on people’s civil rights, including the rights enshrined in the First Amendment.
In 2018, the ACLU of Arizona filed a lawsuit against the City of Phoenix, Police Chief Jeri Williams, and a number of other officers, for violating the rights of protesters on the night of President Trump’s visit in August 2017. Without warning, Phoenix police fired chemical agents and projectiles into a crowd that consisted of elderly people, women and children.
Phoenix police too often resort to excessive force in interactions with Black and Brown people, despite their duty to protect and serve everyone. Similar to that night in August 2017, many who attended protests this month in downtown Phoenix went home with physical and emotional trauma because of police actions.
We cannot let our speech be chilled by unlawful police violence and behavior, and we must demand change. To hold Phoenix police accountable, the 2018 federal class-action lawsuit is asking the court to prohibit the department from using excessive force against protesters in the future. The lawsuit also seeks financial damages for all persons whose First Amendment rights of protest and assembly were violated.
Phoenix police failed to protect the rights of protesters in 2017, and they have failed once again now. It is time for us to reimagine the role of police. I urge the Phoenix City Council and Mayor Kate Gallego to invest in community-based services that are better suited to respond to community needs rather than funnel more money to a law enforcement agency that continues to violate our rights.