The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and a host of other local organizations on Tuesday denounced the prosecutions of Phoenix anti-police-brutality protesters, including the controversial move to hit one group of protesters with gang charges.
Standing outside the Maricopa County Attorney's Office in Phoenix for a press conference, group representatives also called for charges against all protesters arrested in recent months to be dropped.
Last month, Phoenix New Times broke the news that the Maricopa County Attorney's Office had charged over a dozen protesters who had attended an October 17 protest in downtown Phoenix with "assisting a criminal street gang." According to ABC15 News, Phoenix police testified in court that the demonstrators "used the umbrellas to attack officers, conceal their activities, and further their criminal activities." However, video of the protest filmed by AZ Patriots Leader Jennifer Harrison showed a small group of black-clad protesters marching through downtown with umbrellas pointed outwards as police trailed them. Eventually, officers can be seen rushing in and arresting the group, tearing away the umbrellas.
The new gang charges followed months of claims from civil rights attorneys and activists that the Phoenix Police Department was wrongfully targeting and arresting protesters, as well as news reports that protesters were being arrested weeks after demonstrations occurred. Back in late May, Phoenix Police conducted mass indiscriminate arrests of anti-police-brutality protesters and used copy-pasted statements to justify the arrests, prompting the courts to toss numerous cases. A recent New Times investigation also found that law enforcement have been monitoring civil-rights activists and the victims of police violence.
"The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is doubling down on its efforts to kill free speech by charging protesters with being part of a criminal street gang. We are here today to raise the alarm that charging protesters as gang members is a blatant effort to suppress the movement against police violence by prosecuting the right to speech," said Jared Keenan, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Arizona. "These prosecutions are both radical and dangerous and should alarm anyone who cares about the First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly."
"The charges that the county attorney is now filing, which allege protesters are part of a criminal street gang, are very serious felony offenses that can potentially send someone to prison for well over a decade," he added. "Overcharging is nothing new to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. But filing trumped-up charges of gang affiliation against those who the office views as their political rival has absolutely no place in a free society. We demand that the county attorney’s office immediately drop these charges."
In a statement, Jennifer Liewer, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, defended the agency's charging practices and pushed back on activists' claims that the prosecutions of protesters are politically motivated.
"This office does not condone or support political prosecution of any kind and we encourage members of this community to lawfully exercise their First Amendment rights regardless of the cause," she said. "As County Attorney Adel has publicly stated numerous times, MCAO is committed to protecting the safety of everyone in this community, law enforcement and demonstrators alike. While we fully support the rights of everyone to exercise their first amendment rights, we will not allow violence to take over our streets."
Liewer also challenged the description of the defendants arrested on October 17 as 'protesters', citing some of the charges they had been indicted on, including conspiracy to commit assault and rioting.
"While some will attempt to describe these defendants as 'protesters,' a grand jury found probable cause to charge this group with crimes, including the planning of violence," she said.
However, Liewer declined to provide additional detail about the case and the rationale behind the charges.
"Ethical rules regarding trial publicity prohibit MCAO from trying this case in the media or saying anything that might influence a jury in these cases," she said. "Therefore, we cannot provide details about the evidence that was presented to the grand jury."
A slew of local activist groups were represented at the press conference, including Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, Poder in Action, the People's Law Firm, the African American Christian Clergy Coalition, and Mass Liberation Arizona. Julie Gunnigle, a former Democratic candidate for Maricopa County Attorney who lost her bid to oust incumbent Republican Allister Adel, also spoke at the event.
Both Keenan of the ACLU and Viri Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, called for all charges levied against protesters arrested at these demonstrations to be dropped.
Analise Ortiz, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Arizona, told New Times after the press conference that the ACLU of Arizona is calling for "any and all charges that have been targeted at protesters of police violence" to be dropped — including charges concerning property damage.
"As we see it, those are baseless arrests. We see it as Phoenix Police finding reasons to incarcerate these protesters simply because they are expressing their First Amendment rights," she said. "We don’t see similar kinds of arrests or approaches at any kind of anti-mask rallies" or of the people demonstrating outside of the country recorder’s office after Election Day, "which is how it should be. People should be able to go out and protest without fearing some baseless charge."
Phoenix City Councilmember Carlos Garcia, a longtime critic of the Phoenix Police Department, also got in on the action and issued a statement shortly after the November 17 press conference began that denounced the charges and called for them to be dropped.
"While PPD is the face of this intimidation on the streets, they are aided by the MCAO in the courts. We’re now seeing individuals charged with completely fabricated felonies, including the allegation that demonstrators are part of a 'criminal street gang'," Garcia said. "The District 8 office stands with the community in the demand that MCAO drop all charges against protesters. It is unacceptable for governments to use the criminal legal system illegitimately to silence, intimidate, and jail First-Amendment demonstrates whose message they may disagree with. It’s an abuse of power."
Update: This story was updated two hours after publication with the response from Jennifer Liewer of the MCAO.