On the afternoon of Oct. 3, Lee Percy Christian III, a young Black activist who’s spent months protesting the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, was again speaking to a crowd of hundreds in downtown Phoenix.
In a video of his speech, Christian is seen pacing on Washington Street near the intersection with 7th Avenue. The Phoenix Police Department headquarters tower behind him. The sun is close to setting. A warm light hits Christian’s body, casting a long shadow on the pavement. He holds a microphone close to his mouth and speaks about the “good trouble” he and thousands of others have brought through protests since late May.
“The best kind of trouble… civil disobedience. We are going to make sure that they understand, that we are here fighting and making sure we are causing disruption,” he says. “No justice, no peace.”
The rally was organized by 12 community groups that locally promote the national movement to abolish police departments. Hundreds marched to protest the lack of accountability in the deaths of Dion Johnson, a 28-year-old Black man who was shot and killed after an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper found him asleep in his car; and Breonna Taylor, a Black medical professional in Kentucky who was shot and killed by police who mistakenly raided her apartment.
At the Oct. 3 rally, Christian spoke of his previous arrest from July 18. He says police followed him and three other activists who were walking a young woman to her car after the protest was over.
“But for some reason, the police stopped us, followed us the entire way to her car,” he says. “They pulled up on us 20 cars deep, hopped out and jumped us. Only four people arrested? From marching in the street with hundreds of people? It didn’t make sense.”
He then explains how police and county prosecutors are alleging he resisted arrest and assaulted two policemen, which are felonies.
“They want to ruin us, they want to stop us,” Christian says. “None of that matters to me, because Brenona Taylor still got no justice. None of that matters to me, because Dion Johnson still got no justice.
“We gotta stay out here,” he says. “We gotta stay causing civil disobedience. It doesn’t stop here. We got all the odds against us.”
Christian then puts his right fist in the air, as hundreds watch and cheer.
Police were watching him, too, taking note of his movements, according to a police document.
Hours later, shortly after the rally ended, Phoenix police would stop the car Christian was a passenger in to arrest him. Again. Three days later, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office — the same office that weeks before said it wasn’t pressing criminal charges against the state trooper who shot and killed Dion Johnson — would file another criminal case against Christian for alleged rioting.
Christian was held in jail, without bail, for 10 days.
His parents, Lee Percy Christian Jr., a pastor, and Delsa Christian, a minister, flew from Ohio to Phoenix to ask for their only son’s release and an end to the criminal cases against him.
“He doesn’t fit that narrative that they probably want to place on him. All the stereotypes… It’s not there, it doesn’t exist,” Delsa Christian said. “What’s been poured into him is love and support, and we wanted that to be seen. We know that the things that they are saying — they are not charges, they are lies. They are just flat out lies.”
They see their son as someone who’s found his voice. A newly minted leader who will make a difference in communities.
“He’s been a joy for us. We poured a lot into him, and the thought that somebody’s trying to rob his future, I can’t describe the pain,” she said. “He loves to give, he loves to be a source of support because that’s what he’s seen. And he grew up with a lot of love.”
Her husband of almost 30 years then added, “When you arrest someone on false charges, it’s kidnapping.”
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is prosecuting Christian for assault on two police officers, resisting arrest, and obstructing a public thoroughfare for a case that involves two other leaders of the W.E. Rising Project. Christian also faces a felony charge for rioting in a case where he is among 17 defendants, including leaders from Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix and W.E. Rising Project.
Christian Jr., the father, said his son is the target of intimidation and excessive use of police force and prosecutorial powers to shut down a social movement.
“What they want to do is intimidate, they want to silence the leaders by intimidation,” he said. “They want to silence the leaders by veiled and unveiled threats with the hopes of shutting them down, and shutting them up.”
Linda Saunders is one of Christian’s aunts who also traveled to Phoenix to speak up for the young activist. She said during an Oct. 12 press conference that her nephew’s arrests and criminal charges are like what other Black community leaders have faced throughout U.S. history in their plight for basic civil rights.
“Percy will not be silenced,” Saunders said.
‘We should all be really worried’
The October night when Christian was arrested, police also took into custody other leaders and members of W.E. Rising Project and Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix for alleged felonies. Their lawyers say police have no evidence they committed those crimes.
Christian’s case is an example of police “engaging in suppression of people’s First Amendment right to speech,” according to attorney Ray Ybarra Maldonado, who is representing another activist, Kristen Byrd, in his criminal case.
“Your Phoenix Police Department is spending a tremendous amount of resources to stop people from exercising their First Amendment right to protest,” Ybarra Maldonado said on a video posted on Facebook on Oct. 8, speaking about Christian’s case. “Your police department, that you fund, is engaging in suppression of people’s First Amendment right to speech. They are going after activists and leaders in the movement to arrest them, give them felony charges, lock them up to stop them from protesting.
“We should all be really worried, we should all be really concerned,” Ybarra Maldonado said.
In court records, police make clear that they know who the organizers of the anti-police protests are.
“Kristen (Byrd) has participated in numerous protests and can be immediately recognized by multiple police officers,” police wrote on an arrest document from July 18. He was arrested in downtown Phoenix along with Christian, Ryan Tice, Jonah Ivy.
In an October police document, Christian is described as someone who “is known to law enforcement as he has been contacted and arrested in the past three months at protests and riots.”
Delsa Christian said her son would tell her that police knew him by name. In some cases, she said, they’d tease him during protests by telling him, “Do you want to get arrested tonight, Percy?”
In a Facebook post on Oct. 4, Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix denounced Phoenix police for arresting seven people the previous night, in what they say is an attempt to silence their demands for justice for Black people killed at the hands of law enforcement.
“PHX PD was swift to act with brutality and force intentionally pushing through white allies to tackle and arrest Black leadership,” the group wrote. “They had every intention to harass and arrest Black activists tonight and manufacture charges to intimidate protestors (sic).”
The police account of the Oct. 3 arrests of Jaclyn Avallone and Camille Johnson describes a chaotic scene at the Cesar Chavez Plaza in front of Phoenix City Hall. There, police arrested Avallone, Johnson, Keisha Acton and Sarra Tekola.
Police said Johnson used her hands and arms to prevent officers from arresting Tekola. Tekola also tried to toss her cell phone to Avallone before getting arrested, and that led to Avallone’s arrest, according to police.
“Camille Johnson hindered the arrest of Sarra Tekola by running and stepping in front of me with her hands and arms in front of her body to keep me back,” Lt. Eric Zopf wrote in the probable cause statement. “I was forced to push Camille to the side to aid in Sarra’s arrest. It should be noted Camille and Sarra were two of the main organizers of this day’s protest march.”
In Avallone’s arrest document, police said Tekola tossed her cellphone to Avallone as police moved to arrest her. Avallone caught Tekola’s phone and ran with it, according to police. Police said they intended to use Tekola’s cell phone as evidence, and in catching the phone, Avallone “committed hindering and tampering of evidence.”
Police use streets during protests as pretext for arrests
Janelle Wood, founder of the Black Mothers Forum, thinks police are using statutes on obstructing a public street to justify arrests that then lead to felony charges for resisting arrest, preventing an arrest or assault of police.
Wood often speaks about how accounts from police and prosecutor narratives paint Black men, women and children as threats, as aggressive. And she said it’s up to young organizers, in this case, to push back against those characterizations, which police and prosecutors publicly record in media releases and court documents.
Wood’s group advocates for the dismantling of “the systems that have adversely impacted our Black community.” She said the young community activists call her “Mama Wood.”
“I’ve talked to these young people… They say, ‘I promise you, we are not doing what they are saying we are doing. When we get these arrests, they are agitating us. We are doing our job, we are within our rights, and your officers agitate us,’” she said. “They’ve been in the streets the whole time, and all of a sudden there’s an ordinance they want to enforce, and they call it obstruction of a thoroughfare. That’s the one that starts it — that’s the one that starts the agitation.”
Police used the obstruction of a thoroughfare statute to initiate the arrests of activists in the past months. In one document from an Oct. 3 arrest, police explain how it is used to single out protesters.
“Multiple times throughout the night Camille and Sarra were given commands to get out to the street due to obstructing a thoroughfare. They ignored the commands and were later arrested for doing so,” police wrote. “Multiple vehicles had to be redirected by police personnel in order to avoid running into the citizens involved in the march. It should also be noted that there were open sidewalks on either side of the street throughout the march route.”
Wood said young people asking city and police leaders to meet their demands for justice and accountability should be able to set foot on public streets to protest.
She called on the city’s police, mayor and county prosecutor to continue allowing community groups to exercise their right to protests, because after five months, they’re not letting up.
“They thought for some reason our young people will stop doing the protests a long time ago, but they are serious about seeing justice for our children and they are serious about the uprooting of a system that is in place within our police force, basically derived from slave patrols with the whole mindset of anti-Blackness,” Wood said.
Unusual release conditions for Christian
The charges against Christian are excessive, said his attorney, Christina Carter. She requested a bond hearing for the release of the 27-year-old, which was held on Oct. 12.
Christian Jr., the father, said county prosecutors initially proposed a $100,000 bail, but both parties agreed on $1,000. The young activist was released in the early morning hours of Oct. 13.
Carter said Christian can’t return to protests as part of the release conditions.
“The county attorney was concerned about Percy’s continued criminal behavior at protests. We, of course, dispute that he was ever engaged in criminal activity, Percy was exercising his first amendment right to peacefully assemble and protest,” Carter said in an email to the Mirror. “However, that condition was agreed upon by all parties in order to facilitate his release.”
Other protesters Carter is representing don’t have to abide by this condition, she said.
“That is not a typical release condition. I have not had other defendants with that condition imposed,” Carter said.
While Phoenix police and prosecutors insist Christian has continually been involved in criminal activity, his parents are adamant that he is neither violent nor a threat. He’s passionate about helping others, they said.
Delsa Christian remembered how her son, at 13, didn’t leave the side of his grandfather when he died in a hospital bed.
“He shed some tears, but I watched him be really strong, he felt a pain that a 13-year- old shouldn’t feel,” she said.
The day of the funeral, he wrote a poem, he got up and read it, she said.
“We raised a young man with a heart. A heart for people,” she said. “And to think that… I don’t know how these people can look at themselves in the mirror, I don’t know how they can lay down with themselves at night, knowing that their only goal is to destroy a life unnecessarily, for their personal and political agenda. What kind of person are you? What kind of heart is that? That you could do something like that, and be OK with that.
“That’s very dark and evil, it’s beyond dark and evil… Make up stuff, rev it up to be more than what it is, for the sole purpose of destroying a life.”
But despite the felony cases against him, Christian already knows he’s making a difference.
He was one of the young activists who organized under the W.E. Rising Project in early June, when a national movement on police accountability began following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.
In late June, Christian tweeted that he hoped all community groups, new and old, would come together “as one front.”
My number one hope for the movement in the valley is that all groups can unify, and show solidarity on one front. It would be a beautiful thing to see all the divisiveness end, we all want the same thing. I have faith it will happen soon. ?✊?
— BLACKLIVESMATTER (@percy_89) June 27, 2020
Four months later, when he was arrested for a second time and held in jail without a bond, different community groups joined in to send emails, make calls and sign a petition calling to “Free Percy.”
On Oct. 19, speaking on a Facebook video, Christian wasn’t wielding a microphone or speaking on the street. Instead, he was sitting back. With a soft voice, he thanked those that supported his release.
“I just want everyone to know how humbled I am that this movement united, came together, and was able to put enough pressure on the system to help bring me home,” he said. “There is so much power in unity.”
He encouraged those watching to push back against official narratives that paint him and other protesters as criminals.
“Dealing with political persecution is not an easy situation, it’s scary, it’s nerve-wracking,” he said. “I’m going to be out here using my voice, and I hope everyone gets out here and does the exact same thing: finds a way to utilize their gift to help push for social change. Because at the end of the day, human rights, civil rights, they’re important and it starts from within. We have to have the heart to want to change.”