We got this. That’s one message top law enforcement brass for the city, county, and state conveyed a day in advance of Donald Trump’s rally tonight in downtown Phoenix, which is expected to draw thousands of passionate supporters and foes of the president.
The other message? Please, please don't act out.
Civic leaders touted their experience successfully securing past high-profile sporting events, protests, and presidential visits, but tonight’s visit is far from routine.
It comes barely more than a week after the largest assembly of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in two decades and the resulting deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. It comes exactly a week after Trump backpedaled from declaring racism “evil” and the KKK and Nazis “repugnant” to insist that guilt lay with all groups in Charlottesville.
The backlash was swift, wide, and sustained; passions have been supercharged ever since.
Adding to it, Trump told Fox News he was “seriously considering” pardoning former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The six-term sheriff was convicted last month on federal contempt of court charges, after a judge said he showed “flagrant disregard” for an order to halt racial-profiling on traffic stops. He could face six months in prison at sentencing in October.
That prompted Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton to urge the Trump visit be postponed, saying it came too soon in the healing after the tragedy in Virginia and that talk of a pardon would only inflame matters.
Monday, Stanton hadn’t changed his mind.
“I did not feel it was the right time,” he said.
Trump also is signaling he plans to inject himself directly in local affairs. And apparently not in a calming fashion. In the last week, he tweeted scathing renunciations of Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake. Both have been labeled traitors by border watch-groups such as Arizona Border Protectors.
“Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He's toxic!” Trump wrote. Rumors swirl about whether Trump will endorse Flake's opponent Tuesday in the 2018 Republican primary.
In response to a reporter’s question, Trump blasted McCain during his outburst over Charlottesville, saying: "You mean Senator McCain who voted against us getting good health care?"
But the main message in Phoenix on Monday was not political. It focused on safety, and the sense from the Phoenix Police Department, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, and Arizona Department of Public Safety that whatever comes can be contained.
Authorities expect tens of thousands of protesters and counterprotesters, some armed with guns, to descend on downtown Phoenix. Trump’s rally begins at the Phoenix Convention Center at 7 p.m. but expect events outside to heat up well before that.
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams refused to discuss specific security plans. She also didn't answer a press question about whether, unlike in Charlottesville, police would keep factions apart. But she did say police would “create a situation for people to express themselves.”
Authorities have been planning security ever since Trump’s announcement. Those plans involve coordinating the Arizona National Guard, DPS, MCSO, Phoenix Police and Fire departments, the regional emergency operations center, and the state’s antiterror fusion center, known as ACTIC, the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center.
As part of the plan, several downtown streets will be blocked off: Monroe Street from Second to Seventh streets, Third Street from Washington to Van Buren streets, and Fifth Street from Jefferson to Van Buren streets. There also will be no firearms allowed in the Convention Center.
Neither ACTIC, the FBI, nor the regional Joint Terrorism Task Force have passed along any intelligence tips nor advice about what to expect. Nor have they issued any alerts about the possibility of out-of-state extremist groups planning to attend, Williams said.
She did say police have been checking social media accounts of known active groups in Arizona and are aware of their stances on Trump’s visit.
All this is old hat for law enforcement chiefs who lived through the SB 1070 protest a decade ago, or the ongoing controversy over Arpaio specifically and immigration issues generally, or other controversial presidential visits, or Trump’s campaign visits last year.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve done this,” Williams said, assuring the public, “I have no doubts whatsoever that it be like another big event.”
On a vastly larger scale, the climate of Trump’s visit most resembles, potentially, an armed protest in October 2015 at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix.
Hundreds showed up to a tense confrontation between people attending prayers at the mosque and community activists supporting them on the one side, and on the other, a group protesting the mosque by wearing “Fuck Islam” T-shirts, cooking bacon, and carrying guns.
The event ended without major incident, but not before the FBI warned Phoenix of what to expect, Phoenix sent a large contingent of police, and emotions ran high.
This time, though, there will be thousands, not hundreds, and it’s unclear who will show up and with what agenda. White supremacists in Virginia told a Vice news documentary crew that confrontation is part of the larger plan and “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist hate groups, sometimes controversially, declined an interview about Trump's visit. But the SPLC website lists eight extremist hate groups in or around metro Phoenix on its "Hate Map." These include American Vanguard, a white nationalist group, and U.S. Border Guard, an anti-immigration group. SPLC also lists two black separatist groups, three anti-gay organizations, and one anti-Muslim group called Bomb Islam.
It's unknown if any will attend.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Support Our Journalism
“We are prepared for any and all occurrences,” Stanton said. "People who protest will be able to do so without fear of violence, as will people who come to support Trump.”
That was the theme: Phoenix will celebrate legal free speech, but not tolerate crime or violence.
“If any group or individual resorts to violence,” Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said, “prosecutors will be ready. It does not matter which creed or group you belong to.”
Stanton said he expects Trump supporters and opponents to be "civil, respectful, and peaceful. ... We have a chance to show the world what Phoenix really is all about.”