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Keosha Simmons, Courtney Johnson, and an unidentified woman just prior to their arrest.
Keosha Simmons, Courtney Johnson, and an unidentified woman just prior to their arrest.
Ray Stern

Three Arrested for Blocking Mill Avenue Bridge to Protest Police After Viral Video

The viral video of a black family threatened by Phoenix police in May over an alleged shoplifting incident provoked Gilbert resident Courtney Johnson to take a stand.

The young woman, holding a sign that read "Justice and Accountability From AZ Law Enforcement," stood among about 20 demonstrators who gathered just before noon Thursday at Rio Salado Parkway and Mill Avenue in Tempe.

They'd come at the calling of Phoenix activist Jarrett Maupin, who had notified the press that the couple from the video, Dravon Ames and Iesha Harper, and other "victims of police brutality" would be closing the Mill Avenue bridge as part of their protest.

"I was appalled," Johnson said of the video. "That's what led me to realize this was an issue ... I'm here to amplify whatever they're doing."

She was willing to be arrested to make her point, she said.

"Allyship and being an accomplice doesn't count unless you're willing for that to cost you," she said.

An hour later, Johnson was one of three women arrested by Tempe police on the bridge, riding away in the back of a paddy wagon.

The event had begun with a news release from Maupin, a controversial reverend who has been criticized for taking money from some of the alleged brutality victims he's worked with, and who once served time in prison for lying to the FBI about a fake scandal involving a former Phoenix mayor.

Maupin has lost some respect in the community, but he continues to stay involved with the people who make claims about police violence and their families. He unveiled the video footage of the detention of Ames, Harper (who's pregnant), and their two children back in May, leading to its initial publication by the Phoenix New Times .

The video, following on the heels of reports about racist and violence-mongering Facebook posts by police, shows officers screaming at the couple in a parking lot to "put your fucking hands up." One officer, Christopher Meyer, yelled at Ames, "I'm gonna put a fucking cap in your fucking head," and "You're gonna fucking get shot." Meyer later tries to pull Harper's 1-year-old daughter out of her arms, which the family later said injured the child's arm.

The incident made international headlines and struck a nerve with many residents, leading to a community meeting last month attended by about 2,600 people. Family members of people shot by police directly addressed Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Police Chief Jeri Williams at the meeting. Gallego had previously said the video made her "sick," and she apologized to the family, who soon put in a claim against the city for $10 million. Maupin was booed at the meeting by some community members.

Last week, Tempe police drew the wrath of Maupin, Ames, and Harper by releasing bodycam video of Ames' violent arrest in Tempe back in October. As the video shows, Ames argued with police that they shouldn't detain him after a fender-bender, and he ended up wrestled to the ground, punched, and tased.

Thursday's protest came in response to Tempe's release of the video, which Maupin said was "an act many interpreted as a 'sick' attempt by local police to demonize and criminalize an innocent man and his family who were violently detained, abused, and violated by Phoenix police just weeks ago."

Maupin expected Ames and Harper to join Edward Brown (paralyzed after being shot in the back during an apprehension) and the families of Jacob Harris (shot in the back while fleeing the scene of a robbery) and Dalvin Hollins (shot by a Tempe officer after robbing a drug store). Phoenix and Tempe police say those shootings were justified, but Maupin and others call them glaring examples of police brutality.

Jarrett Maupin (center) and protesters on Mill Avenue's southbound bridge.EXPAND
Jarrett Maupin (center) and protesters on Mill Avenue's southbound bridge.
Ray Stern

Protesters, many holding signs criticizing the police, began to arrive after 11 a.m. Thursday at the corner of Rio Salado Parkway and the southbound Mill Avenue bridge, finding shade under trees in Tempe Beach Park to escape the brutal, 110-degree heat.

One participant, CW Faulk of Mesa, said he wouldn't help close the bridge, but was happy to lend support to the protest.

"I want to stop the unlawful shootings and cops who think they're above the law," he said.

While the protesters waited, a middle-aged jogger stopped by with a one-man counterprotest. Spit flew from his mouth as he praised police and berated the protesters, a few of whom in turn yelled at him.

Ames and Harper still hadn't arrived by noon. Keosha Simmons of Mesa, Ames' sister, briefly talked on the phone with Ames and told New Times he was still in Phoenix, concerned about jeopardizing Harper's health. Maupin decided to move ahead with the bridge closure following a short address to the news media covering the protest.

One of the goals of the protest, he said, was to bring attention to a lack of transparency by police in shooting incidents. Valley departments need to release information "that is vital to the cases that are impacting these families. Video, reports, body-camera footage — there's so much information that's out there. That's why we're here today."

Asked if he was concerned about the motorists the protest would block, Maupin answered that closing the bridge would "redistribute the pain" that police-brutality victims and their families have felt.

With that, he led a small procession of 15 protesters — including three young girls and Brown, in his wheelchair — north up the middle of the bridge over the Town Lake on Mill Avenue. As they walked, no vehicles came south to meet them — police had closed off the north end of the bridge. A few other protesters stayed in the bicycle lane or on the sidewalk.

The group stopped to pray in the middle of the street. Then, several police vehicles began slowly driving south on the bridge toward the group. A voice came over a loudspeaker telling the group they were in violation of the law for obstructing a roadway.

"Please go back on the sidewalk or you will be subject to arrest!"

Members of the media and most of the protesters then moved to the sidewalk or bike lane. So did Maupin, who said he didn't want to be arrested "today" because he might have to come back to the bridge on Friday with Ames and Harper.

Officers approached the three women who remained in the middle of the street, Courtney Johnson, Keosha Simmons, and an unidentified woman. After giving them one last chance to avoid arrest, the officers handcuffed the women and loaded them into the transport vehicle under verbal fire from other protesters.

"How many cops do you need for three unarmed women?" a protester on the sidewalk repeatedly shouted.

Tempe police did not respond to a request for more information about the incident.

UPDATE: Maupin said later on Thursday evening that he's planning for another protest at the bridge on Monday, with "new arrestees."

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