Videos show moments before Phoenix PD dispersed peaceful anti-Trump protest




A protest organizer in front of Phoenix officers before he tells protesters to make sure they get on the sidewalk. Photo by Chloe Jones | Arizona Mirror

New videos show the tense moments between police in riot gear and protesters gathered on a crowded sidewalk that led the Phoenix Police Department to fire pepper balls and flash-bang devices on peaceful demonstrators to clear the road in preparation for a President Donald Trump motorcade leaving a campaign event in north Phoenix on Tuesday.

One video posted on Twitter shows a line of police officers in riot gear advancing towards a crowd of people on the west side of Cave Creek Road. One officer used his plastic riot shield to push a protester backward. The protester braced himself with his hands and pushed back on the shield, which prompted the officer to grab him by his neck and try to wrestle him to the ground. A scuffle ensued, during which one protester appeared to throw a punch at the officer’s shield and another threw an open water bottle at the shielded officers. 

Seconds later, other officers opened fire on the crowd with pepper balls, which are less-lethal projectiles filled with pepper spray that explode on contact. Other officers deployed flash-bang grenades, which use concussive sound. Protesters scrambled for cover, and some fell as chaos ensued. 

In a statement issued Wednesday evening, the Phoenix Police Department alleged two people committed aggravated assault on a police officer: One is believed to be the man who pushed the officer’s shield and a second person who attempted to strike that same officer’s shield. No one was arrested.

The department said there is an ongoing investigation. Aggravated assault of a police officer is a felony, punishable by up to nearly four years in prison. 

A second video was filmed by Sushil Rao, a demonstrator. It shows protesters on the opposite side of Cave Creek Road complied with police requests to leave the roadway and stand on the sidewalk. As the protesters chanted at the police in riot gear, the officers advanced on the demonstration, repeatedly ordering them to back up. Then the police shoved the protesters and fired pepper balls. As the crowd retreated, one officer sprayed multiple bursts of pepper spray into the crowd, which had at that point retreated beyond the sidewalk. 

The escalation took place after demonstrators left a designated area marked off by police outside the Dream City Church, where Trump spoke to thousands of his supporters. About an hour into the speech, demonstrators moved to the street and walked to the intersection of Cave Creek Road and Sharon Drive.

Protesters were asked by officers to move to the sidewalk, and they did, packing themselves in a small area.

Officers equipped in riot gear lined up one by one across Cave Creek Road and slowly took steps forward as protesters chanted, “I don’t see no riot here, why are you in riot gear?” and “We stepped back, now you step back!” 

Inside the campaign rally, Trump was about an hour into his speech. He wouldn’t step off the stage for another 30 minutes or so.  

The rally to protest Trump was organized by the W.E. Rising Project, a group that has held rallies in Phoenix almost daily for about a month as part of national mass demonstrations to denounce the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota, Dion Johnson in Phoenix and other Black lives lost after encounters with law enforcement. 

The group said it was police who assaulted people exercising their free speech rights.

Lee Percy Christian, a lead organizer with W.E. Rising, said police assume those demonstrators, who have the goal to gather peacefully to express their voice, “are going to be aggressors.”

“If protesters have presented themselves as non violent, as peaceful, (for police) to bring out riot gear, militarized weapons, shotgun bangs, loud noise bangs, that is way too excessive,” Christian said. “For them to come out in that fashion shows how little respect they have for us, how much they are trying to diminish our voice. The weaponry was excessive.” 

In a statement Wednesday, Phoenix police said demonstrators were not off the street and officers in riot gear were trying to “safely guide” them off the roadway.  

“Demonstrators began to illegally congregate in the street and block the roadway that the President of United States motorcade would be using to leave,” police spokeswoman Sgt. Ann Justus said. “They were given verbal warnings on the loudspeaker to move back. When they did not move from the roadway, officers moved towards them with plastic shields to safely guide them to the sidewalk. One demonstrator use (sic) two hands to shove an officer‘s shield, knocking him off balance. A second individual also attempted to strike this same officer. These acts constituted aggravated assault on a police officer which is a felony.”

Two minutes after the police began firing pepper balls into the crowd, an announcement was made using a long-range acoustic device, or LRAD, that the assembly had been declared unlawful.

On Twitter, state Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said Phoenix police routinely violate people’s right to protest. 

Arizona law defines an unlawful assembly as a gathering of two or more people who have the intent to “engage in conduct constituting a riot.” A riot is defined as a group of at least two people that “recklessly uses force or violence or threatens to use force or violence, if such threat is accompanied by immediate power of execution, which disturbs the public peace.”

The Phoenix Police Department has in the past drawn criticism, and a lawsuit, for how it responds to people taking to the streets to denounce Trump, his immigration policies, and systemic racism. 

Last summer, police also alleged a lawyer assaulted an officer during an immigration rally. When prosecutors declined those charges, the case moved forward as resisting arrest, which is still a felony. The case was thrown out by a county judge

Chloe Jones contributed to this report.