Twelve adults and three minors were arrested inside of a west Phoenix Walmart Friday night after about 20 protesters took their anti-police -brutality message into the crowded store. The group entered the building about 8:30 p.m. while chanting “stop police brutality” and “cops, pigs, murderers,” and were followed by a group of police officers, who warned them again and again that if they did not leave immediately, they would be arrested.
The demonstrators appeared to be headed toward the exit when the arrests began. Someone yelled “disperse,” and a few individuals took off running through the aisles, but many more were tackled to the ground by the police.
As Phoenix police officers subdued and then handcuffed the masked individuals amid shelves of back-to-school supplies and racks of women’s clothing, dozens of Walmart shoppers stood by and filmed the unfolding scene with iPhones. Some onlookers expressed solidarity with the “stop police brutality” message outwardly, while many more could be heard whispering to friends and family that the protesters’ had a good point.
This weekend is the one-year anniversary of the day police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
While riots in Missouri gripped the nation last summer, the Phoenix area experienced its own version of a tragedy a week later after a standard court-ordered, mental-health pickup took a disastrous turn, and an officer fatally shot 50-year-old Michelle Cusseaux at point-blank range at her west Phoenix apartment. The officers ordered to take Cusseaux into custody said she waved a hammer in the air, and they felt threatened. Cusseaux’s mother, Fran Garrett, says her daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
You might not know it by the way Friday night ended — with a paddy wagon full of arrestes getting carted off to a processing center – but two hours earlier, under a bright orange and pink post-Monsoon summer sunset, the demonstration actually began as a peaceful rally to commemorate Cusseaux and advocate for police reform.
Between 30 and 40 individuals began gathering at 55th Avenue and Clarendon at 7 p.m. Many held signs that said “Justice for Michelle,” or waved others with images of Cusseaux or Sandra Bland — who was arrested after she was stopped for a traffic violation in Texas a few weeks ago, and later died in jail under what many feel are suspicious circumstances.
Last night’s event originally was planned by local activist group Wave of Action and intended to be part of a national weekend of action to bring attention to rampant police violence against black, Latino, and other minority populations. Organized under the popular hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, one Wave of Action member told New Times earlier this week that so often “when a woman of color gets killed, no one pays attention,” which is why “we are going to scream [Bland and Cussaux’s] names until more people pay attention.”
The group invited Cusseaux’s mother, Garrett, to the rally, and she in turn helped spread the word to her family and many of her daughter’s friends. It was, by any account, an impressive turnout, and Garrett effusively thanked attendees for helping to honor the memory of her daughter and turn this tragedy into a catalyst for change.
“It’s not just men being killed by police, but women, too. Especially black women and those with mental-health issues,” Garrett said. “The police don’t see us as damsels in distress; they come at us like [we’re a threat].” She added that while the Phoenix Police Department has made some commendable improvements in mental-health training since last summer, there’s still a lot of work to be done. “They need more community input [and need] to be educated on how to handle people with mental-health issues.”
Cusseaux’s older sister, Lisa, also was present, and both she and her mother wore matching T-shirts from a big #SayHerName rally in New York City earlier this year. The two helped lead the group in chants of “stop police brutality, justice for Michelle,” and waved to cars driving by.
With a bright sunset to the west, and a dark wall of summer thunderclouds rolling in from the north, the Wave of Action crew arrived about 7:15 and encouraged everyone to start marching toward a more populated area.
Local civil rights leader Reverend Jarrett Maupin showed up as they were making their way up 55th Avenue toward Indian School Road, and when he found Garrett and Lisa Cusseaux at the front of the pack, he took their hands and marched with them.
When the group turned east on Indian School Road, many were surprised to see a caravan of PPD cars and other officers on motorcycles or on foot, but the activists, most of whom were dressed in black and carried black flags (an anarchist symbol), seemed anything but surprised to see law enforcement. The taunting – “fuck you,” “fuck the police,” middle fingers waved in the air – began immediately.
“What’s going on?” a young boy who appeared to be about 8 asked an officer.
“It’s just some community members who want to express their feelings about something,” the officer replied.
“Did somebody get killed?” the little boy asked.
“No, nobody got killed recently, sweetie,” she said softly. The boy, apparently content with this explanation, walked away.
The group marched up and down the sidewalk along Indian School, and the police blocked traffic each time they crossed the street. By 8 p.m., the last of sunlight had disappeared, and the heat lightening in the distance became more noticeable. It illuminated the sky every few seconds, adding a somehow fitting ambiance to the muggy night and patchy beams of light from car headlights.
The Wave of Action crew began leading the crowd across the busy and wide intersection of 53rd Avenue and Indian School yelling: “Whose streets? Our streets!.” Maupin, still walking with Cusseaux’s family, suddenly took the lead.
“Don’t listen to him, he’s a fucking sellout,” one man wearing a black balaklava yelled. “Maupin isn’t a part of this!”
“He’s trying to hijack this; he always does this,” another person said.
But Maupin ignored their insults and led the group back across the street, this time stopping to kneel in the middle of the intersection to say a prayer for Michelle. With the odd glow of headlights, police floodlights, and lightening, illuminating the scene, Garrett thanked everyone for coming out, and Maupin bowed his head and said a prayer.
“You need to get out of the street, or you will be subject to arrest,” an officer said finally. Maupin didn’t look up but instead finished his prayer and led the group back to the sidewalk. By this point, police reinforcement had arrived, and there were at least 15 police cars parked down 53rd Avenue and another half- dozen lining the side of Indian School Road.
“I want to know why the racist bikers are the free-speech people, and we get all of this,” someone from Wave of Action yelled, referencing the anti-Islam free speech rally at a Phoenix mosque earlier this summer.
“All of this for this?” another man said to his friend, pointing at a few officers dressed in riot gear.
There appeared to be a few minutes of confusion – was this the end of the demonstration? – as Maupin, Garrett, and her friends and family began walking away. They made it clear they were ready to go home and commemorate Cusseaux in private, and the remaining activists argued about whether to go with them or continue the protest.
“They’re leaving?” one woman asked. "They're taking half the crowd."
“Yeah, they’re walking her home,” someone explained.
“Come’on, let’s go,” a different guy said, hinting that they should move back into a more populated area.
“I don’t like Maupin, but I don’t want to disrespect the mom,” his friend replied, looking back and forth between the now divided group.
Eventually, the 25 activists decided to head back to Indian School Road, continuing to taunt the barricade of police walking with them.
“How’s your night, sir?” a small, thin woman asked a police officer.
“I’m doing well, how are you?” he replied.
“You know, you could probably kill me right now and get away with it,” she said in a calm voice before walking away.
The officer looked baffled, and then sad. (A sharp contrast from most other officers, who took taunting with a straight face or a smirk.)
The group made its way toward the Walmart yelling, “Whose streets? Our streets!”
“What’s her name? Michelle Cusseaux.”
“Fuck the police!”
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A handful of demonstrators broke off at this point, deciding not to cross that invisible line from the public sidewalk to the private Walmart parking lot, but the rest started running toward the store, collecting a few teenagers hanging out by the entrance who seemed enthralled by the idea of joining something exciting on a Friday night.
They pulled open the doors to the Walmart, and walked in screaming their message. Police followed them calmly until they dispersed.
“This is what a police state looks like, people!” one of the protesters shouted over and over as two police officers held him down and put him in handcuffs.
Law enforcement got all of the demonstrators out of the store and began the process of substituting handcuffs for flex-cuffs – the strong, plastic temporary handcuffs used in mass arrests. About 9 p.m., the last of the arrestees was led into the white paddy wagon – “it’s gonna be a party downtown!” he yelled.
“That sure is a lot of cops! What’s going on?” an older man, Ocie Bilal, asked New Times. He listened with wide eyes, and then without necessarily condoning the group’s actions, made it clear that he supported the fight against police brutality. Bilal lives across the street from where Cusseaux was shot last year — and still is still furious about what happened:
“Even if she had a hammer, they shot her down in cold blood. What’s a little woman gonna do with a hammer? It wasn’t a gun.”